I recently asked readers to submit their burning leadership development questions. Those that get picked for a post will receive a free copy of my e-book.

This one from Susan Broussard (permission to use full name):

“We have started a leadership development program among the top performers in our company. We are working on development and succession so that we are better prepared for the coming retirements. The program is not a secret, and we have talked openly about it to all employees. My challenge is the grumbling and engagement among those not in the group. How do I differentiate and develop talent without leaving others behind?”

Susan, your question is one that talent-management professionals have been struggling with since the early cave people selected their high potentials to be the next tribe leaders. Whenever you differentiate based on performance (or perceived potential), and make the results public, it’s inevitable that there will be resentment from those that did not come out on top towards those that did.

Some would argue that with the influx of the “everyone gets a trophy” generation, it’s going to be even more of a challenge to differentiate. Yet when it comes to high potential programs, many of the experts are telling us that the benefits of transparency outweigh the potential backlash.

According to research conducted by the Center for Creative Research, 77% of high-potential leaders surveyed reported that being formally identified was highly important to them.

Furthermore, knowing one’s status as a high potential has a significant effect on retention. Of those formally identified, only 14% were currently seeking other employment, compared with 33% who were not formally informed by their organizations.

So, while transparency is good for your high performers and high potentials, what about the rest of your employees? There are some things you can do to minimize the backlash or feeling of being left behind.

Be as clear and transparent as possible as to how participants are selected.

Letting people know the selection criteria helps clear up some of the mystery behind why someone was selected and why others were not. It also helps provide developmental targets to those not selected.

Use a comprehensive selection process.

Some organizations allow employees to submit an application for leadership-development programs, with minimum requirements. Their managers can approve or disapprove, and a selection committee makes the final decisions. This at least gives everyone a chance, casts a wide net, and provides feedback to those not selected. Others use formal assessment centers or tools to assess potential in an attempt to be more objective.

Train managers how to give feedback.

Managers need to learn how to have candid conversations with their employees about their performance and potential. If they are not being honest, then employees won’t understand why they were not selected. With regular and candid feedback, there should be no surprises, and each individual gets development that’s appropriate for their unique development needs.

Provide development for ALL employees.

A high potential program is just one type of program. Every employee, no matter where you fall on a nine-box matrix, deserves some kind of development. It’s a different kind of development. See “Nine Leadership Development Strategies for a Performance and Potential Matrix” for a complete list for all nine boxes.

By the way, there are potential negative behavioral side effects for those that get selected for the program, too! It’s important to let people know that being selected is no guarantee of a promotion. It’s a developmental opportunity, and it’s up to them to make the most of it. It’s not a lifetime membership; it’s only a point-in-time designation. Be very clear as to what ti means to be a high potential and what it doesn’t mean.

Dan McCarthy is the director of Executive Development Programs at the University of New Hampshire. He writes the award-winning leadership-development blog Great Leadership and is consistently ranked as one of the top digital influencers in leadership and talent management. He’s a regular contributor to SmartBlog on Leadership. E-mail McCarthy.

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