TTT – Developing High Potential Talent

 These are the thoughts and takeaways from the latest Talent Think Tank (TTT) held on Thursday 20th February 2014 hosted by Pitney Bowes’s Jackie Tullett, Director of Integrated Talent Management, titled ‘Developing High-Potential Talent’

The following summary has been prepared to reflect a segment of the discussion held amongst senior HR and Talent professionals from leading national and international businesses. Specific company details, experiences and examples have been omitted from this summary as all discussions are held under ‘Chatham House Rules’.

Employees badged as ‘high-potential’ are considered to truly represent the values of their employer and are invaluable to the future of the company. How can you develop this employee population to ensure they deliver maximum value to your business?

High Potential – But For What?

One major issue is how talent is defined. For companies that have particularly rigorous recruitment processes and strive to only employ the very best, should all employees be considered to be talent, or should the term be reserved for a top tier within that group?

Often, the term ‘talent’ is reserved for those with potential for leadership; it is important to take into account, however, that some High Potential individuals are not suited for leadership roles, and are more suited to being specialists.

Identifying Talent

Begin trying to identify talent as from the initial interview stages. Some companies do this by looking at an individual’s values and motivations before anything else, in order to make sure that they align with the kind of talent that the company is looking for. It is also a good idea to be open and communicative about leadership possibilities, by asking candidates as from interview stages if they see themselves as future leaders. Though most interviewees will claim that they do regardless of whether this is the case or not, as they develop in their role they are more likely to decide whether leadership is suited to them and be honest about this. The key is to keep communication open and honest, and to make it clear that there are other ways of developing their career if leadership is not suited to them.

Early in Career Programmes

One method of developing talent is by running 12-18 month early in career (EiC) programmes; eligible for high performing employees who have proven themselves in their roles and demonstrated significant potential for development. The programmes generally comprise of several elements: classroom learning, virtual learning, tasks that take them outside of their day jobs, and opportunities for the EiCs to meet global senior leaders, with a focus on personal development and pushing EiCs out of their comfort zones.

  • Selecting programme members by way of interview is important; this may seem obvious, but it can be all too easy to nominate high-potential EiCs who have no real interest in progressing toward leadership. An interview process requires them to question and demonstrate what they can bring to the programme and how it will benefit them.
  • Splitting the programme into two ‘routes’ – management and specialism – allows those who are not as focused on leadership to benefit from a valuable programme in which to develop their skills.
  • Pairing each EiC with a mentor is highly beneficial, as they can develop a relationship built around their specific areas of interest.
  • Having a CEO or senior leader to sponsor the programme can be highly beneficial. Keep the sponsor involved in order to take advantage of their knowledge and skills when developing the programme.
  • Enable the EiCs to meet, and have two-way conversations with the senior sponsors.
  • The quality of the projects is key to the quality of the programme. The tasks should be robust and of genuine value in terms of the development of the EiCs, while also being commercially sound. Consider getting an external sponsor on board for specific tasks so the EiCs are working toward a beneficial project for the company.
  • Work towards globally integrating the programme. This will allow the high-potential EiCs to see the different cohorts of the company as interlinked rather than separate. Future leaders will have a common point of reference and a joint understanding of what it means to be a global leader within your company.
  • Consider how results are going to be measured at the end of each programme – developing a system of measurement involving metrics and evaluation is essential to the progress of the programme from one year to the next. Collecting tangible data allows the programme to be improved year on year.

The ‘18-month itch’

Social media has led people to compare jobs a great deal more than in the past, resulting in employees shifting careers more frequently. In an environment where younger people move from one organisation to another every couple of years, how are people managing talent? How are companies dealing with the fact that they could develop high-potential talent, only to lose it a year or two down the line?

  • Peer-to-peer recommendation has become essential to take into consideration; people believe their peers and make decisions accordingly. This has created a need for more transparency and more communication, such as keeping high-potential employees in the loop of their own development.
  • Taking  a risk on some people, rather than waiting two or three years before identifying them as high potential, has become more important than ever
  • Instead of viewing a HiPo moving to a different organisation as a permanent loss, consider that if their experience within the company was positive, they might decide to return to the company a few years down the line once they have furthered their skills and experience elsewhere. Consider creating online and offline alumni groups, in order to develop a positive social and professional network for those who have left.

Glass Ceiling

A common problem seems to be the low percentage of employees identified as high potential who actually end up working in global leadership roles. There seems to be a glass ceiling whereby candidates for the highest senior roles are sourced externally. Some HiPo individuals return to the same programme several years in a row, yet remain in their original role. It is important to follow up the programme with actual movement, and to give the candidates a chance to expand within a new position rather than only sourcing from the outside. Issues could stem from a fear of losing a key member of a team when they are promoted into a new business area, or of taking the risk of placing someone in an unfamiliar role. Once the talent has been identified, it is important to have a strategy in place to decide how to move forward. Consider monthly CEO meetings that focus on why leaders are being hired from the outside.

Neglected Areas

If a line manager does not know how to accurately identify talent, or how to help with the progression of that talent, it could be damaging to the company on the long term, as the wrong people would be pushed forward while individuals who could be highly successful in leadership roles would be held back. It is important to ensure that the managers know how to identify talent, and what your company looks for in its global leaders.

Another important, but often overlooked, part of the company is the ‘mighty middle’- the valued professionals that end up executing a huge amount of the company’s ideas. How are the strong individuals within that ‘mighty middle’ being developed? A similar programme could also be introduced for them, to help them progress within their careers and build on their skillset.


A common theme discussed throughout the event was the importance of self motivation, particularly in terms of how high potential candidates are selected.

  • It could be worth considering having employees nominate themselves for the leadership programmes, then back up their nomination with two or three references. This would ensure that the individuals who are part of the programme took the initiative to be there in the first place, and so have an active interest in developing their career in that particular direction.
  • Some companies have incorporated technology that uses online media to allow individuals to take control of their own careers. Employees are able to go to a forum and ask for skills or knowledge they are lacking, that others can then offer. The department in need of assistance would then be able to review the individual who offered their knowledge. This introduces an element of gamification into the development of both high potential individuals and strong ‘mighty middle’ individuals.

The Talent Think Tank’s recommendations:

  • Communicate with high-potential employees about their prospects, and remain open and honest.
  • Make sure the line managers are on board with the company’s aims, and know how to deal with high potential individuals. Consider running sessions and support groups for line managers, where they can share debate and deal with problems together, so as to learn from one another.
  • Create an atmosphere where anyone is able to put themselves forward as willing to push themselves towards leadership – a system where employees get ‘tapped on the shoulder’ creates tension and the sense of there being an ‘elite’ within the company.
  • Have options available for those who want to develop in their careers but are not considering leadership, such as programmes for specialists or the ‘mighty middle’.
Gaby Docherty

Written by , Marketing and Events Assistant

Gaby joined Oasis HR in February 2014 as Marketing and Events Assistant, helping with promotional activities, branding, social media and SEO. She also co-runs the HR Think Tank Series platform. Before joining, she studied English Literature at Warwick University, followed by two years during which she interned in a variety of companies in the publishing and marketing sectors, travelled and wrote, and completed an MPhil in Screen Media and Cultures at Cambridge University. In her spare time she is a keen creative writer, jogger, and TV and film nerd.

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One Response to “TTT – Developing High Potential Talent”

  1. Amy Phoebe Poole

    Superb summary; this is incredibly insightful. Thank you so much!


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