Nurturing High Potential: Feature Article; 4 Issue 4

One thing was very clear to Narendra the HR head of an MNC, early in the induction training of the new batch of campus recruits. The energetic Simmy was different from the rest of her batch. Her questions to her trainers were never ending, she had a perfect score on all her training assessments and she had started quizzing Narendra on the interesting assignments that she could work on. Narendra wondered whether he had stumbled into a high potential employee and if yes how was he going to develop her talents. Today, most HR heads and CEOs are grappling with similar questions. Who are the high potentials in my organization? How do I nurture them to become the future leaders of the company? They realize that unless they answer these questions the very success of the organization in future could be at risk.

Who are High Potential Employees?

They are the “fast-track” employees, those who expect, and are expected to progress, speedily through the ranks. You would naturally assume that the high performing employees are also the high potential employees. But, an article in Harvard Business Review called “How to Keep Your Top Talent” (May 2010) states that “only about 30% of today’s high performers are, in fact, high potentials. The remaining 70% may have what it takes to win now, but lack some critical component for future success.” And the litmus tests for discerning which high performers are also your high potential employees, are as follows:

  1. Ability – They need to have the ability to not only do what they are doing now, but to take it to the next level.

  2. Engagement – They must have “commitment to the organization to be prudent bets for long-term success.”

  3. Aspiration – They must aspire to more senior-level roles and “choose to make the sacrifices required to attain and perform those high-level jobs”.

Gritzmacher (1989) outlined the following key characteristics of fast-trackers:

  1. A unique perception of their occupation: seeing their role as making their organization into a global leader in its field (and playing an active leadership role in that).

  2. A broad-thinking style: seeing wholes rather than job-bounded parts.

  3. Time-consciousness: a drive to achieve the most as soon as possible.

  4. Independence: a creative urge to add value to guidelines.

  5. High commitment: a belief that the organization would be diminished without them and a drive to enact that self-perceived importance constructively.

  6. High energy: the ability to get supranormal amounts of work done and cheerfully come back for more.

  7. A need for creativity and variety: need for new and testing challenges.

  8. A varying interest in teamwork: the labeling of fast-trackers as the favoured can make team interplay difficult; also the need to move ahead faster than the pack can make them impatient with others.

  9. Continual improvement: a hunger to challenge and improve whatever they are involved in.

Considering that the High potential employees are going to be the leaders of tomorrow, it is very important to ensure they are given effective development opportunities. 

Developing the High Potential

The process of developing high potentials in an organization starts with the identification of the high potential and then assessing them on their leadership talents. Once this is done most organizations develop their high potential employees by putting them on a development program and periodically reviewing their performance and development. Potential Development programs have a set of interventions and practices which enable organizations to identify high potential employees and help them achieve leadership positions in organizations.

Some Examples of Potential Development programs

The Tata Administrative Services (TAS)

To build a cadre of future leaders, Tata Sons, the group holding company has institutionalized The Tata Administrative Service program. TAS selects and trains talented postgraduates from India’s leading business schools and institutions to grow leaders who can lead the various group companies in the future. TAS trainees grow through a rigorous process of learning across group companies and have individual career maps charted out. The first year is dedicated towards group orientation and learning, termed as “GOAL”. It includes two weeks of intensive orientation about the group and opportunities to interact with the senior management of the Tata Group. Training provides exposure to various initiatives, various facilities and future plans of TATA. Challenging projects are assigned to each Trainee. Exceptional candidates are recognized for merit. After completing the GOAL, the recruit is given a posting which matches his/her choice and organizational requirements. TAS gives the recruits exposure across various functions, group companies and responsibilities. Management expects the TAS recruit to be in a senior management position within 10 to 12 years, where he/she will be having a strategic role and considerable external contacts.

Infosys Technologies Ltd

Infosys has set up the Infosys Leadership Institute (ILI) for identifying high performers and giving them opportunity in improving the performance of the organization as potential leaders of the organization. Candidates for the 3 year leadership program are chosen based on past performance and assessment of leadership potential. ILI interventions are based on a “Nine Pillar” leadership development model. The Nine interventions are as follows:-

  1. 360 degree feedbacks: Aligned towards leadership competencies, they help to evaluate employee on critical leadership competencies and in making the personal developmental plan.
  2. Developmental assignments: They help in gaining cross functional experience and developing practical leadership skills.
  3. Culture workshops: They make sure that the culture and values of the organization is well ingrained in the developing leaders.
  4. Developmental relationships: These are basically mentoring programs, which provide the candidate with a mentor viz., a leader of the organization. This helps in gaining considerable knowledge and experience sharing.
  5. Leadership skills training: This focuses on imparting organizationally relevant leadership skills by veteran leaders of the organization. This also ensures top management commitment for developing future leaders.
  6. Feedback intensive programs: They are behavioural interventions based on informal and formal feedbacks from the experiences that the candidate has from the individuals with whom he/she interfaces.
  7. System process learning: This aims at giving a holistic picture about the organization as one system and sensitises about improving the system as a whole.
  8. Action learning: This provides opportunities for hands on experience in improving relevant and live organizational problems.
  9. Community empathy: In tune with the basic organizational value of giving it’s due to the society, the leadership program needs candidates to enroll for community development programs.


In Wipro’s “Life Cycle Stage Development Program” employees identified as potential leaders are given training according to their level in the organization.

  1. The Entry level program aims at building leadership capabilities in entry level employees with high potential.
  2. The New Leader’s program is for building young professionals into people leaders of the future.
  3. Wipro Leaders program targets high performers in the middle level of the organization. They also have the added responsibility of building leaders from the bottom.
  4. The Business Leader’s program aims at building competencies of the employees who have potential of building/ managing business units. Here the impetus is on providing competencies for revenue generation and business management.
  5. The Strategic Leader’s program’ aims at building top management leaders for future.

Wipro ties up with best known business schools to impart some of the critical skills. The focus is on strategic thinking, global focus, vision and building star performers. Wipro’s leadership development is based on their vision of having leadership in terms of business, customer, people and brand. Wipro has identified competency based leadership qualities. The critical competencies have been identified based on rigorous interviews, focused groups and critical incidents. The competencies required for top management, senior management and middle management are continuously identified and assessed across teams. 360 degree feedback is used to assess the leaders on the basis of Wipro Leadership Qualities. Based on the feedback, Wipro identifies the areas for development in each of the individuals. Training programs are organized and the leader is asked to formulate his/her plan for development. Leadership development at Wipro has high degree of support from the top management. Even the CEO, Mr Azim Premji participates in the leadership development activities.

Features of Potential Development Programs

There are some common features of organizations with best practices in nurturing high potential employees. They are listed below.

  1. Top management support: At ‘best practices’ organizations namely General Electric, Motorola, Pepsico, Federal Express and Johnson & Johnson, there is high degree of top management commitment especially the CEO, for leadership development.

  2. Linkage with the strategic necessity of the company: This factor determines how much leadership development is in tune with the organizational needs.

  3. Established processes for selecting the best talent as future leaders: A combination of past performance, credentials in terms of qualification and assessment of competencies through various methods like 360 degree feedback or assessment centers are used for a fair selection of high potential team members.

  4. Regular Talent Reviews are conducted: CEOs drive Talent reviews with the same rigour as Business reviews. In Talent reviews high potential performers are tracked and succession plans built around them. CEOs consider this as their key responsibility and personally execute the plans.

  5. Direct linkage of Leadership development with the values and culture of the organization: Leadership development programs consider the imbibing of culture and value as an important element.

  6. Use of internal resources: For instance senior leaders of the organization participate as mentors/coaches for the new candidates.

  7. Periodic educational experiences for candidates: There is institutionalization of a program of educational courses through colleges, management institutes and trade organizations. The chosen candidates for leadership development are given higher developmental opportunities and career enhancement advice. Executive coaching has proven to be a powerful tool in developing leadership competencies for the future. Recent studies indicate an ROI on executive coaching to be six times the cost of the coaching costs.

  8. Defined leadership competencies: Organizations have their own established leadership competencies which are linked to the culture and business environment. For example, the competencies identified for top management at Wipro are customer orientation, strategic thinking, problem solving, self confidence, global thinking and acting, commitment to excellence, aggressive commitments and building star performers and teams.

  9. Establishment of corporate universities (CUs) or leadership institutes: CUs like the Crontonville of GE have institutionalized processes which help in identifying the organizational leadership talent, which conforms to the needs and culture of the organization. CUs deliver training and interventions, which align leadership talent closely with the organizational strategic initiatives. CUs are utilized to have a focused approached towards identifying leaders and giving them specialized and customized training.

  10. Personalized and formal development plans and defined career paths for the candidates: Specific strengths and weaknesses of each of the candidates are identified and development plans are made. Identified high performers are tracked and reviewed even after the specific programs to understand their advancement in terms of career. Candidates typically are provided with a career path which include:-
    1. Exposure to experiential learning: This teaches them the much needed organizationally relevant business skills.

    2. Cross functional Training: Experience in more than one specialization is ensured through job rotation etc.

    3. Opportunities to take significant risks and full responsibility: Many organizations test their high potentials by identifying risky and challenging positions and putting their rising stars in these positions to see who can meet the challenge. Candidates are given real opportunities to contribute to the really significant heartbeat issues of the organization including the opportunity to make mistakes and learn from them.



One of the challenges that have to be dealt with while managing the development of future leaders is the possible dip in motivation of employees who are not high potential employees. While some of them may leave on account of this, most can be retained by ensuring fairness. Transparency in the process of identification of high potentials and communication of the same is essential for establishing this fairness. It is also important that there are adequate development opportunities for all employees so that every employee can develop and reach their potential.