Who’s responsible for developing the leaders of your organization’s future? Recent research from DDI’s Global Leadership Forecast suggests that 2/3 of organizations have programs in place for identifying and developing high-potential leaders and that in 85% of those organizations senior management is responsible for identifying and developing those individuals. But it’s a tricky needle to thread for a senior management team. Four key questions help. Who? How many? How? Why?


Whatever you do, don’t stop at performance.

A person’s outstanding performance in the current position does not necessarily predict outstanding performance at the next level. We’ve all seen the Peter Principle in operation a few too many times, haven’t we? Avoid that by looking beyond performance to assess next-level potential. Ask questions like these:

  • Who asks great questions that push us beyond the status quo?
  • Who is always learning more and connecting new ideas to our overarching goals?
  • Who has the influence (even without formal authority) to advance ideas for making things work better?
  • Who has a knack for seeing what other people do well and positioning those people to succeed in the process of achieving bigger picture team goals?
  • Who do people naturally turn to for answers or advice or a listening ear?
  • Who do you implicitly trust?
  • Who elevates the game and the intensity of every other player when he or she walks onto the court?
  • Who manages change and conflict in ways that keep people focused on achievement?

Whatever a person’s specific expertise, these habits of thinking and action make success more likely at the next level of leadership.

Don’t stop at the rung right below the C-suite either.

Creating a leadership pipeline requires identification and development of next-level leaders at all levels of the organization. Senior management can take care of one or maybe at most two or three levels, depending on your organization’s size and structure. They need to coach the people they lead to ask the same kinds of questions and have the same eye for potential to make the identification of high potential a cascading value and practice at all levels within the organization. Make creating a leadership pipeline a shared cultural value!


The size of your high-potential pool matters.

Make it too small (5-10%) or too big (35+%) relative to your total population at any given level and your engagement and retention are likely to drop. “Just right” seems to be in the 15-30% range, with 25% being the average.


Objectify the process.

  • Eliminate any process that relies solely on individual manager recommendations.
  • Decision by committee or consensus isn’t much better.
  • At a minimum, your senior management team (or its corollary at other levels within the organization) should identify specific, objectively measurable criteria that define next-level leaders who are historically successful in your organization. Then use multiple raters to evaluate each candidate relative to those criteria.
  • In the best-case scenario, use a validated assessment tool that measures potential to predict next-level leadership performance. Compare those results with real time performance data and look for convergence.

Here’s an example of that best-case scenario for the top rungs of leadership. At Talent Plus, we have studied tens of thousands of leaders using a structured, validated Executive Interview benchmarked against high-performing leaders (and we can help you create a customized benchmark with your own high-performing leaders). We’ve also used this interview to help our clients select high-potential pools and create succession plans.

The image above is a leadership potential / succession planning matrix, with each dot or square representing an individual leader and depicting how that leader compares to all other leaders along four separate dimensions related to leadership effectiveness (Drive, Intellectual Acumen, People Acumen and Executive Skill). Up and to the right is good, but there are two more dimensions to consider (represented by the shape and color of the marker for each person). It’s a comprehensive, holistic view of leadership potential you can put alongside other more performance-related criteria to separate those who are truly high potential next-level leaders from those who are high performers in their current roles. It’s also part of a suite of instruments, including management and supervisor levels that can help fill out your leadership pipeline at multiple organizational levels.

Ask these questions:

Whatever objective instruments or processes you choose, ask yourself:

  • Is it standardized?
  • Is it validated?
  • Is it objective?
  • Does it go beyond performance to measure potential?
  • Is it detailed?
  • Is it individualized?
  • Is it consistent and integrated across multiple levels to build a pipeline?

Career development for everyone, not just your high potentials.

You want to keep your high performers just as highly engaged as you keep your high potentials, right? Ideally whatever instruments and processes you use will be detailed and individualized enough to create specific, personalized coaching strategies for everyone, not just those who are ultimately identified as high potential. Understanding everyone’s strengths and investing appropriately in everyone’s growth can lead to higher engagement across the board. And having leaders and managers who invest in people’s career development is highly correlated with higher levels of satisfaction and retention – it’s a virtuous cycle. Here’s a link to some specific questions managers and leaders can ask in Career Investment Discussions with everyone on the teams they lead.


I’ve left the most important question for last. Here are just a few reasons you should be investing in identifying and developing high-potential leaders (and, as it turns out, everyone else) at all levels of your organization.


How do you develop a leadership pipeline in your organization?

  • Who? Go beyond performance to assess potential. Create a multi-level leadership pipeline.
  • How many? Defining high-potentials as 15-30% of your total leadership cadre is “just right”
  • How? Objective, detailed and individualized with a focus on development for everyone
  • Why? Culture, employment brand, engagement, retention, your bottom line

Kim Turnage, Ph.D. works as a Senior Leadership Consultant for Talent Plus, helping leaders select the best people, make the right investments in talent development, and create talent-based succession plans that will ensure the future of their organizations.

She writes weekly posts on leadership and everything that goes along with it. Find them all here.

Talking Talent,

Kim Turnage
Senior Leadership Consultant
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