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High-potential leadership programs: The bridge from individual contributor to leader

high-potential programs-for-future-leaders

Do you have employees who you suspect are extraordinary? Perhaps even leadership material?

Even if you don’t have an open spot among the ranks of management to promote them immediately, it’s important to let them know you value them and want to prepare them to advance into leadership when the time comes.

Your workplace may need a high-potential leadership program.

What is a high-potential leadership program?

This is a leadership development program in which you identify and train employees who demonstrate the capacity to be strong leaders – at any level of the organization – from the get-go. Even while they’re still individual contributors, you can start laying the groundwork to:

  • Teach them about being an effective manager and how to build effective teams
  • Prepare them for the day-to-day responsibilities of management
  • Set expectations for performance
  • Enhance their innate abilities
  • Develop skills when gaps or weaknesses exist
  • Widen their professional network by connecting them with senior leaders and peers

In this way, you can help them:

  • Achieve their goals to become a leader
  • Establish a path toward success
  • Find fulfillment in their career

A high-potential leadership program is actually a significant part of your company’s people strategy.

If a leadership “program” sounds daunting, don’t worry. We’re really just talking about a core set of activities and training with a dedicated focus. It doesn’t have to be costly to build and implement to engage high-potential employees.

Why having a high-potential leadership program matters to your business

Every business needs a bench of solid, well-trained leaders ready to execute and be effective at the right moment. This is so you can avoid leadership gaps and the associated negative impacts to employees and business operations.

And it’s almost always more time and cost efficient to promote from within your organization than try to recruit the right individual from outside.

When might a bench of future leaders come in handy?

  • When any business scales up or experiences change, its needs evolve. As part of this growth, new leadership can help to adjust to these shifts and align with expanded opportunities.
  • As more tenured leaders retire or other leaders resign to pursue other opportunities, your workplace needs to be ready with qualified replacements. A high-potential leadership program is a critical component of succession planning.
  • Sometimes, businesses need to resolve leadership problems.

Additionally, the entire working landscape has shifted dramatically in the past few years because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the widespread transition to remote and hybrid work. Today’s employees are reevaluating what’s most important to them and prioritizing work-life balance and workplace flexibility. In response, today’s managers are expected to exhibit human leadership rather than managing like a traditional boss. Businesses need more leaders who understand this shift in mindset and culture and are prepared to lead in a way that strengthens employee engagement and retention.

Employee benefits of a high-potential leadership program

Many companies struggle with employee retention. It’s more challenging than ever to persuade valuable employees to stay with your company for the long term. If you want to retain employees – especially your high-potential employees – you have to promise them something worth staying for.

Most employees want assurance that they have a career path within your organization, along with opportunities to grow and develop along the way. They want a goal to work toward.

In some cases, high-potential employees know their worth and want the opportunity to move upward and realize their full potential – now or at some point in the future. You’ll need to maintain good communication and transparency with these employees about available leadership opportunities and the timing. Doing so helps mitigate the risk of them losing enthusiasm if their expectations don’t pan out as quickly as they thought.

As a result, a high-potential leadership program can contribute to higher employee:

  • Morale
  • Engagement
  • Productivity
  • Loyalty
  • Retention

Identifying high-potential employees

So, how do you know if an employee is the right fit for leadership – especially in today’s dynamic work environment?

Don’t fall into the trap of looking solely at job performance. Being an effective leader is about so much more than merely being good at one’s job. There is a subtle, but distinct, difference between outstanding individual performance with the optimal knowledge, experience and technical skills versus strong leadership performance. (Some high-performing individual contributors don’t even want to be managers.)

Don’t focus only on the people who are most charismatic, vocal and outwardly confident – the people who seek to be noticed and advance fast. Wanting to be a leader and having an outgoing personality doesn’t automatically confer the right managerial skill set on employees. And by directing your attention toward the most extroverted and ambitious employees, you can overlook some hidden gems with the right skills who fly under the radar. These may include employees who are:

  • Introverts
  • Not natural self-promoters
  • Not politically astute
  • Not skilled networkers

Instead, look for certain traits that any future leader must have. These include:

  • Care for the company and its mission, vision and values
  • Empathy and high emotional intelligence (EQ)
  • Good communication skills
  • Natural listening abilities
  • Positive attitude
  • Trustworthiness
  • Flexibility
  • Resilience
  • Desire to be a coach and servant leader to others
  • Strong business acumen
  • Sound judgment
  • Team player
  • Capacity for creativity and innovation
  • Initiative and drive
  • Strategic thinking
  • Strong work ethic
  • Self-awareness (along with the commitment to self-assessment)

What should this program include?

A strong high-potential program that produces effective leaders should incorporate a blend of:

  • Core training on overall leadership skills
  • Targeted training curriculum for development of specific skills
  • Individual coaching
  • Simulations of real-world management activities that require working with people, solving business problems, overcoming challenges or applying innovation
  • Rotations into other roles or divisions to experience a broader part of the company and gain a comprehensive view of operations
  • Mentorship with senior leaders (or even reverse mentoring opportunities, if the leadership candidate has valuable knowledge or skills to share)
  • Opportunities to lead teams or important projects
  • Networking with leadership

As you can see, the program should combine individual, self-paced training with personal guidance and experiential learning. The goal is to give selected employees special experiences to expand their view of the company’s culture, challenges and vision and help them advance within the organization.

It certainly doesn’t have to be a formal group program that candidates complete at set times or only when a promotion is available. These are all activities that candidates can participate in on an ongoing basis, immediately. In fact, weaving leadership development into an employee’s regular responsibilities can further boost their engagement. This is part of a great continual learning culture.

Getting started

Here are some initial steps to follow when implementing a high-potential leadership program.

1. Define “high potential”

Earlier, we covered some examples of traits commonly seen in future leaders. Every organization is different and every person has different standards, so you’ll need to carefully define what constitutes high potential at your company.

Without a consistent, companywide definition or a formal process of identification, leaders may fall back on their gut instinct about what makes someone a “star” or get too caught up in trying to predict who will be a leader. Ideally, companies wouldn’t create a culture in which leaders make individual – and likely biased – calls about which employees get leadership opportunities.

In crafting your definition of high potential, consider which values and behaviors are especially important given your company culture and goals.

You can include this definition of high potential within your company’s promotion policy.

This will enable you to:

  • Ensure that you focus on the right employees for the right reasons
  • Spread understanding of leadership standards throughout your workforce, from the top down
  • Select high-potential employees without the appearance of discrimination

However, try to avoid being too narrow or exclusive with this exercise. You definitely don’t want to encourage an environment of haves versus have-nots, or ins versus outs. With today’s emphasis on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in the workforce, be careful about employees who aren’t labeled as high potential feeling left out, which can lead to low morale, disengagement and eventually turnover. Everyone needs to feel as though their manager has confidence in them as a performer, and any set definitions of high potential shouldn’t be a barrier to DEI.

2. Set clear, measurable goals for the program

Explain what success looks like, and how your company will know whether its program has achieved it. Ensure your success criteria is supported by your C-suite and senior leadership, and share what success looks like throughout your organization.

Be transparent with employees when setting goals. For example, the number of leader-ready candidates may depend on the availability of leadership positions.

3. Outline the program

What will your organization offer as part of its high-potential leadership program, keeping in mind the blend of optimal training and learning opportunities mentioned earlier?

4. Engage senior leadership

Without the long-term support of senior leadership and their commitment to teaching, mentoring and acting as role models to high-potential employees, the program won’t be successful in achieving its objectives – and won’t be valuable to the participants, either. Senior leaders are typically busy, but their oversight of this program should be a priority that is written into their schedules.

Summing it all up

If you have exceptional employees who perform at a high level and exhibit desired leadership traits, don’t allow the opportunity for them to get bored and leave for a competitor. Engage them with an effective high-potential leadership program. Let them know of the leadership opportunities that exist at your company. Start preparing them now with a compelling and comprehensive curriculum that includes a strategic blend of training, coaching, mentoring, networking and continuous feedback to nurture their skills, unleash their potential and shape them into future leaders. In turn, your employees will be assured of their value to your company, and their morale, productivity and loyalty will increase along with their retention. 

To learn more about cultivating the next generation of effective leaders, download our free magazine: The Insperity guide to leadership and management.