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3 Ways to Develop High Potentials for Leadership Roles

By John Wright on February 14, 2019

Today’s high potential employees are tomorrow’s leaders. If you invest in their development, they are more likely to grow into strong leaders that drive business results and set the company up for future success. Developing your potential leaders also helps keep the pipeline full and comes with additional benefits such as lower turnover, better employee engagement, and deeper institutional knowledge. If your high potentials are not properly identified and developed, you run the risk of them leaving to find that development opportunity elsewhere. Cultivating high potential employees to become future leaders takes a focused effort that includes identifying the right candidates, enrolling them in personalized leadership development programs, and creating a line of sight to their future at the company.

1. Accurately Identify High Potentials

The first step in building your leadership bench is identifying individuals who add value to the organization and are eager to learn the necessary skills. High potentials are the employees who typically:

  • Consistently deliver on their commercial commitments
  • Have shown a commitment to the organization

  • Inspire those around them to do better

  • Volunteer for new challenges and step up when extra work is required

  • Proactively seek out learning opportunities

  • Could become key drivers of organizational performance

  • Show an interest in taking on a leadership role

To identify high potential candidates, look at what your current and most successful leaders do well and the skills they possess that make them successful. In addition, consider the future needs of the business to determine what might be missing. Taken together, this formulates a basis for high potential criteria. Once you have codified those criteria, consistently look for employees who meet them. This requires ensuring that leaders are aware of the criteria and are evaluating the employees they work with directly to determine who meets the standards. It could also include performing periodic assessments to measure performance and observing performance during training sessions.

Prepare your high potentials of today to be your top leaders of tomorrow.

Avoid making some common mistakes when identifying high potential employees. Don’t assume that the highest performing employees have the highest potential for leadership; some people are excellent at their job but may not be strong leaders. Don’t select candidates based purely on their ability to climb the ladder; they must also contribute to the success of the business. Finally, don’t focus only on past success. People behave differently as they enter new roles, and it’s important to continually evaluate performance to ensure that the candidates you are grooming are the right fit.

2. Offer Leadership Development Opportunities

High potential employees are extremely engaged, and they want to do what it takes to advance their careers. Leadership development programs not only benefit the company by keeping the pipeline full, they also demonstrate a commitment to high potentials and help maintain their engagement.

Create ongoing leadership development opportunities that are tailored to individual high potentials and build on previous training. Use a combination of approaches that address every learning type, including experiential learning, e-learning, classroom-based lessons, and so on. If you truly want to change behaviors and introduce new leadership habits, focus on experiential learning that allows trainees to test their new skills in a safe environment using trial and error to see which approaches are most effective without any repercussions for the business.

Follow up any type of training with a retention strategy to help participants keep the information top of mind and encourage them to practice new skills. Consider implementing a coaching or mentoring program so high potentials get one-on-one attention and access to an existing leader who can guide them. It’s also important to continue to support those who don’t immediately succeed. If the potential is still there, they might just need more time and training.

3. Create Milestones and Measure Success

High potentials are strongly driven by achievement. They want to know how their previous performance has measured up and what they need to improve to reach the next career milestone. Work with each high potential employee to lay out the best path for them and create milestones with measurable goals. Periodically check in on progress and set mini-milestones if necessary to maintain momentum. Celebrating and rewarding success and ensuring executive interaction will keep high potentials engaged and motivated to move on to the next goal.


In order to retain and attract top talent, organizations must have the systems in place and the motivation to seek out high potential candidates and provide development opportunities that are unique to each of them. Creating a formalized development program that accelerates a high potential employee’s path to leadership will ensure that you retain your top talent and maintain a full leadership pipeline.

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Since 1991, John has acquired extensive experience in the design and delivery of a diverse portfolio of programs. In addition to his executive responsibilities as President of Leadership and Learning Events, John is considered a valued partner to many executive teams. His insight and experience enable him to effectively diagnose, design, and implement complex culture change initiatives in a collaborative and engaging manner. Moreover, John’s experience in global implementations allows him to draw from a deep well of history to create unique and customized solutions. John’s passion for developing people makes him a sought after speaker, partner and coach and is evident in the high praise he receives from clients.

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Founded in 1988, Eagle's Flight has earned its reputation as a global leader in the development and delivery of business-relevant, experiential learning programs that achieve specific training objectives and lasting behavior changes.

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