Five Ways to Get More From High Potentials

Recent research from The Corporate Executive Board Co. shows that organizations with strong leadership bench strength have double the rate of revenue and profit growth compared to peers with weaker bench strength. Meanwhile, separate CEB research shows that turnover for existing C-level positions has been rising for the past few years, suggesting an increased need for high potential development programs.

Simply offering a high potential program, however, is not indicative of future business success. While these programs make sense in theory, many are failing to deliver results. In fact, according to a 2013 CEB study, more than half of these employees will turn over in a five-year period. Of those who stick with the program, a 2012 CEB study found that nearly half do not meet business objectives in their first leadership assignment.

Despite these statistics, there is some good news. Although many high potential programs are in need of repair, there are organizations that are realizing significant returns on their investments.

Based on various CEB research studies over the last few years, there are five things that these organizations do differently to identify high-potential employees, keep them engaged and retain them for future leadership roles.

1. They define “potential” clearly. Many organizations confuse current performance with future potential. While identifying employees who have a strong record of high performance is an important step in identifying them as high potential, it isn’t enough by itself. Most high-performing employees don’t have the necessary qualities to be effective in senior roles, and assuming that high performance is equal to high potential puts the odds at six-to-one that the employee will fail in the program, CEB research shows.

2. They recognize that employees need more than strong performance in their current role to succeed in future roles. Employees need to have the aspiration to rise to a more senior role, the ability to manage and lead effectively, and engagement levels that show commitment to their organization.

3. They measure potential objectively. Only one in three organizations use assessment data to identify employees for high potential programs, and nearly half lack a methodical process for identifying and developing high potentials, according to CEB research. But to most accurately measure potential, the successful organizations use systematic assessments of employees’ aspiration, ability and engagement. Rather than relying on subjective assessments, nominations or evaluations, these organizations ensure fair and valid identification of high-potential talent through scientific assessment and objective evaluation.

4. They ask for commitment in return for career opportunities. High potential employees are highly marketable — they are strong performers and are often confident they can find work elsewhere. Therefore, organizations that see the highest returns on their high potential investments proactively mitigate flight risk among these employees. The most progressive organizations protect their investment in high potentials by asking for future commitment in return for development opportunities.

5. They create differentiated development experiences. Typical high potential programs fail to prepare participants for future roles. By giving high potentials stretch assignments, they not only learn new skills but also apply existing skills to different roles by being exposed to high-impact development experiences.

Eugene Burke is a chief scientist and analytics officer at The Corporate Executive Board Co., a member-based research and advisory firm. He can be reached at