Article: Managing High Potentials in the human age

Learning & Development

Managing High Potentials in the human age

Loren Walsh, Head, Center of Excellence for Leadership, Right Management, emphasises the need for right mentorship and opportunities for innovation, to train and retain high potential talent
Managing High Potentials in the human age

The biggest challenge in the emerging economies is keeping up with the competition given the global developments


Loren Walsh, Head, Center of Excellence for Leadership, Right Management, emphasizes the need for right mentorship and opportunities for innovation, to train and retain high potential talent.

What forces are compelling the topic of high potential development to gain imminence?

Two major forces are compelling ‘High Potentials (HiPos) management to gain prominence in emerging economies of Asia, especially India. They are demographic composition of the workforce and speed of economic evolution. There are a great number of workers under thirty in the emerging economies, such as India and China, where the economy is growing at 8-10%. There is a need for leadership, and a majority of the workforce is not yet ready to move into leadership positions. Along with that, mentoring and the process of succession management is not as finely tuned in these economies as it is in the West. Western economies experienced the luxury of developing next generation leaders across a span of 10-15 years and were able to fine-tune their strategies by learning from experience. Emerging economies like India, on the other hand, are experiencing rapid evolution of the business landscape, thereby requiring accelerated development of leaders.

A large number of the leadership population in the existing workforce is expected to retire across the next few years and the smallest population of leadership population now comprises Gen X. In a few years’ time, the largest population of the leadership population will hand over the leadership to the smallest population. This is basically a European and American phenomenon, but will soon catch up in emerging economies. Apart from retirement, many professionals in senior leadership positions now want to be entrepreneurs or already run additional businesses. There is an increasing trend of leaders wanting to do their own thing. Corporations, on the other hand, are in dire need of seasoned talent that is ready to lead in the global economy. These developments are compelling the topic of high potential management to gain imminence, especially in emerging economies like India.

What specific challenges do Indian organizations face in high potential development and management?

In India, the demographic is unique. There is an added pressure of needing managers early on. The biggest challenge in the emerging economies is keeping up with competition given the global developments which creates a much higher performance bar for managers. The sheer size of the demographics is a big opportunity as well as a management challenge. In terms of innovation, emerging economies are becoming global and as an employer, the bar is being raised. It is becoming increasingly difficult to fill positions with candidates who are strong enough and HiPo development is still very new in India.

Many large organizations in China and India are family-owned and handed down through succession. The culture in these organizations is very protected and very insulated, and it is a radical shift for these organizations to adapt to this changing development.

What is the practical approach to adapt to this change?

First approach, it has to be pragmatic. Traditionally, the approach towards development has been around experience, exposure, education, in the commonly known 70-20-10 approach. What economies are now witnessing is the shift away from education toward exposure and experience. Creating programs that have insight, development opportunities, and more importantly, application of leadership, have become very important. The scientific approach to application is to create acceleration. Leadership needs to be flexible, agile, and connected to the dynamism of global leader.

How can organizations accelerate leadership development?

Multinational companies in India are growing at 35 percent, and it feels like they are fixing the wing of the plane as they fly. To ensure accelerated development, we need to take the findings of the past, distill them into paradigms and models proven over time, and apply to an innovation opportunity that is going to deliver results. That forms the basis of accelerated learning.

The Indian workforce comprises a mass of first generation leaders who have not left the country, and feel empowered to shape their own country. There is a tremendous ‘can do’ attitude and this energy has to be harnessed. Indian corporations need to invest in mentors, who can guide emerging leaders in the right direction.

Providing opportunities for innovation is at the heart of retaining HiPo leaders. When one of the preferred employers in the US, Cisco Systems, started losing skilled leaders to companies like Google, Apple, and Facebook, they realized that simply having a HiPo program is not enough. They needed to provide future leaders the opportunities to innovate. Innovation, however, is difficult to manage in large-scale organizations. It is a traditional dichotomy of innovating for tomorrow, while running operations for today. Thus, irrespective of size, organizations must continually endeavor to remain nimble.


What is the right process to ensure fair selection of HiPos for a program?

While some methods, such as manager nomination and talent reviews, are fairly common, organizations devise customized tools to provide objective support to the selection process. While there is no easy answer to how organizations should select HiPos, the selection process should not disrupt the organizational culture.

Should one communicate the HiPo status to a selected candidate?

Communication, as many organizations reveal, is a double-edged sword. While it can trigger a spurt in the motivation of an employee who is selected for the program, it can also potentially disengage others in the team. Communication of HiPo status, therefore, needs to be carefully disguised so as to avoid any disengagement triggers within teams.

How to set the right expectations to the selected high potentials?

Often, a program can set very high expectations among selected candidates that can become difficult to manage. Communicating that ‘fast track promotions and exponential growth are not natural imperatives post selection into a HiPo program’ is a very tricky conversation for any organization. Organizations should be candid in communicating that individuals need to earn their selection into the HiPo program every year or two years, depending on the cadence.

How to ensure that leaders have adequate knowledge to nominate high potentials from other business constituencies?

Nominations into HiPo programs are often restricted to leaders nominating individuals from their own team or business constituency. Selection can only be fair if leaders have adequate knowledge about high potentials in other teams to arrive at a standard measure for selection and nomination. Organizations should create a system that enables leaders to view asymmetry in expectations, diverse functional skills, and dissimilar outputs across different constituencies of the business, and arrive at a common ground to measure talent outputs.

(Excerpts from the Right Management & People Matters roundtable discussion)

Read full story

Topics: Learning & Development, Leadership

Did you find this story helpful?



What are the top work tech investment focus areas for your company currently?

How are you helping to build the future of work?

READ our latest issue for perspectives on the many facets that form tomorrow's workplace.