How Real Leaders Identify and Develop Talent: Part 2

Learn how to develop leadership within your organization. Whether through empowerment, mentoring, or just redirecting employees on the verge of derailing, get the best out of your company’s high potential talent.


In my last column, we talked about the fact that the process of cultivating leadership is dominating the thinking of many organizations that are concerned about not having the leadership talent they need to achieve their growth strategies. I described the study that my firm, Executive Development Associates, Inc. (EDA), conducted to find out how leaders actually go about identifying and developing other high potential talent.


To recap: we asked heads of executive/leadership development to identify leaders who had a reputation for being great at developing leadership talent. We ended up interviewing 20 “role model” leaders from 16 companies. My previous column looked at how these role model leaders identify talent, this one focuses on how they develop that talent.

We divided leadership talent into two categories for the purpose of the study:

  1. “High-Potential Executives”: Current executives who have the potential to fill positions on the top management team reporting to the CEO in the future.
  2. “Emerging Leaders”: Younger leaders lower in the organization who have the potential to fill executive level positions in the future.

The key interview question we asked was, “What actions do you take with regard to accelerating development that have the most impact?” Below are the most frequent responses from line leaders about the development actions they take for “High-Potential Executives:”


High Potential Executives

  • Stretch assignments — 57%%
  • Rotational assignments — 42%
  • Developmental conversations — 42%
  • Increasing level of responsibility — 42%
  • Formal training programs — 26%

Supporting the first two responses, one interviewee said, “If the timing is right, I can move them straightaway into a completely different role where they can grow broadly across the business and prove to us that they do have broader capabilities outside of a single function…”

Below are the most frequent interview responses from line leaders about the actions that they said they take to accelerate the development of “Emerging Leaders,” i.e., those actions that have the most impact:


Emerging Leaders

  • Stretch assignments — 68%
  • Rotational assignments — 47%
  • Formal training programs — 36%
  • Creating visibility — 31%
  • Developmental conversations — 26%

As one line leader noted, “It’s really about giving people increased opportunity, bigger roles, empowering them more, and watching them closely to see if they step up to, and are able to handle, each increased level of responsibility.”

Nicole Drake, who conducted the interviews while she was an intern with EDA (she is now a consultant with leading simulation provider BTS), stated: “Mentoring was also mentioned frequently… A mentor’s role included facilitating developmental conversations and creating opportunities for increasing their visibility in the organization.”


One of the most vexing issues an organization faces is when one of their rising stars suddenly falls out of favor or “derails”. These employees seem to have everything going for them, they’ve been put on the fast track and identified for great things, but something goes amiss and they get side-tracked. So we asked our role-model leaders what derailment factors they look for in both High Potential Executives and Emerging Leaders. These were the most frequent responses:

High Potentials (combined)

  • Ego — 53%%
  • Developed too quickly — 36%
  • Self serving — 30%
  • Repeated failure — 29%
  • “One trick pony” — 23%

Two of the most interesting interviewee comments were these:


“If they have strong results, but they sacrifice team members or the bigger picture, or are too self-serving, they would no longer be considered high potential.”

“They might have expectations of the rate that they are going to move up. They think that they should be moving up very quickly and when they don’t, they lose patience. They can become disillusioned.”

We also asked the line leaders what actions they take when they see a high flyer becoming derailed. Here are a few of the responses:

  • Confront them with the facts of the issue
  • Involve a coach or mentor to correct the behavior
  • Consider reassignment

This was a typical response: “I take a very directive but guiding leadership style that quickly addresses the issue as soon as it develops. One should identify and mitigate the undesirable behavior by leveraging fact-based, first-hand, specific examples, and suggesting behavior that would be more appropriate.”

Finally, we asked our role-model line leaders what thoughts or suggestions they had for us on the topic of identifying and developing leadership talent. Here’s a sampling of their responses:

“Find ways to have multiple perspectives. If you’re making an assessment of people, have two or three other people that you have confidence in also making assessments.”


“I think it comes down to taking a risk. What I have found in a lot of cases is that people have never been pushed and they always had that ability, it had just never been tapped.”

“If you give them feedback on where they need to improve, most really embrace that feedback, and when they get it they get it forever, so it’s a lesson learned.”

One final thought to contemplate: our line leaders were quite certain that high potentials place an increasing premium on the amount and quality of development they receive when deciding to remain in an organization. This is a key fact to remember given how critical it is today to retain top talent!