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How to Tell High-Potential Leaders They're Special
Business Journal

How to Tell High-Potential Leaders They're Special

by Jennifer Robison

The most successful companies are intentional about improving their succession-planning efforts. They identify high-potential managers and leaders, then provide them with breakthrough learning and development experiences -- crucial steps in building a talent machine.

Selecting and touting future leaders shouldn't be an arbitrary process -- it should be a scientific one.

But openly conveying to high-potential leaders that they could be superstars, for instance, risks disengaging other employees who aren't hailed as standouts. Finding and maintaining this delicate balance can be complicated, and many companies stumble and make the "tell-or-don't-tell" question harder than it needs to be.

There are ways to make this process work while improving engagement and boosting leadership performance, says Barry Conchie, a Gallup Senior Scientist and coauthor of the bestseller Strengths Based Leadership. The key is to use a validated and transparent process to identify high-potential leaders -- and to be smart about how you notify them and begin the leadership development process.

"If your high-potential leaders don't feel special, if they don't feel invested in, if they don't see themselves as part of the future, or if they don't think the organization is looking after them, they're going to go," Conchie says. "They are very good, and that makes them very marketable. And if your company doesn't tell them so, some other company will."

Use data, not gut instincts, to identify high-potential leaders

Many companies select leaders based on personality traits or likability, not demonstrated leadership talent. This can damage engagement among other employees because those who think they should be leaders may not see themselves on the list, and they have no idea why. "Before a company says anything to its high-potential leaders, it must determine the criteria that it will use to identify top leadership talent," Conchie says. "Those criteria must be explicit and public. It's important for people to know what qualifies them to be on the list."

Selecting and touting future leaders shouldn't be an arbitrary process -- it should be a scientific one. The best way to identify leadership talent, according to Gallup research, is with an assessment that is scientifically validated to predict leadership performance. "Don't use your gut instincts -- use data," Conchie says. "Build a profile of who has the capacity to be a future leader, then define their talent against validated criteria, and you'll see at a threshold level who stacks up. Out of 100 people, usually there are only 10 worth investing in."

Once you've identified your high-potential leaders, it's time to notify them and begin the development process. And Conchie says when you tell them you've identified their talent, do it privately -- but not because you fear turning emerging leaders into egomaniacs. By definition, high-potential leaders won't become impossible to work with, because they have the social sophistication and interpersonal skills to be leaders.

Instead, this communication should be private because public announcements can have a disengaging effect on the rest of the workforce. That's why, as Conchie says, the criteria for advancement should be explicit and public. That way, everyone will know what they must do to rise in the ranks if they have leadership talent.

Then expect to open your wallet. "You're telling high-potential leaders that they're part of the company's future. So yes, you have to pay them what they're worth or they'll leave," Conchie says. "They have to feel special because they are special. There are harsh economic realities here."

Pay considerations are important, but development plans are also crucial to getting the best performance from high-potential leaders. You must have development plans in place as soon as you tell these leaders that you have recognized their talent. They need to know how the company intends to help them meet their potential. "Explain how you're going to invest in them and help them grow," Conchie says. "Otherwise, they'll feel dubious about their future if the company doesn't have a plan to help them become the best they can be."

Identifying, notifying, and developing emerging leaders takes some resources: scientifically validated criteria, money, and a development plan. But whatever resources they require, Conchie says, high-potential workers pay back in spades. "Getting the right people in leadership positions returns a mutually affirming benefit to the organization," says Conchie. "They take the company forward. And if you don't properly select, inform, pay, and train high-potential leaders, you run the risk of losing the people on whom your future depends."

In the next article in this series, Barry Conchie will discuss how to identify and create breakthrough development experiences for high-potential leaders.


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