6 Major Derailers for High Potentials

By Barbara Frankel

Whatever approach you use to select high potentials, it’s an important and arduous process. Choosing the right people — and ensuring the pool is diverse — is critical to your company’s succession planning.

But once they are in the high-potential pool, what can your company do to ensure they don’t become disengaged or burned out, or seek opportunities elsewhere?

Based on interviews with DiversityInc Top 50 companies, including EY, Sodexo, Wells Fargo, Marriott International and TD Bank, and 25 Noteworthy Company Dupont, here are five common derailers and solutions.

1. Lack of Transparency. It’s been common practice in corporate America NOT to tell people they are high potentials for fear of alienating others or impacting the high potential’s engagement if they fall off the list. That trend is changing, though, because people leave if they don’t feel valued. “It’s important to tell people. If people don’t know they are highly thought of, they can leave,” said Lydia Mallett, Director, Global Talent Acquisition and Organizational Vibrancy at DuPont.

“When I look at exit interviews, I learn that people leave because they don’t know there is opportunity for them,” said Linda Verba, Executive Vice President, Head of Service Strategy and Chair, Diversity Leadership Team at TD Bank (No. 39).

While more companies are telling the high potentials where they stand, they are not making the list public to the entire organization. Mark Ferrara, Vice President of HR at Eli Lilly and Company (No. 24), stated: “We do tell individuals whether they are seen with additional leadership potential but do not feel it is appropriate for us to make that information public.”

2. Infrequent Exposure to Senior Leaders. High potentials need formal relationships with top management (mentors, sponsors) but also the ability to observe and present to them on a regular basis. EY (No. 4), for example, has a GlobalNextGen two-year program that helps future leaders connect regularly with senior management, as well as develop a global, market-focused approach to business. Sodexo’s (No. 5) mentoring program, IMPACT (which is now in its 11th year), pairs high potentials (many being women, Blacks, Latinos and Asians) with senior executives for one year. The program has had 170 partnerships this year.

3. Not Enough Stretch Assignments. High potentials need the ability to learn new skills and go beyond their areas of expertise, according to every talent-development expert we’ve contacted. Yet many companies pigeonhole them and don’t allow them new experiences. “The best experience is to move around and work in different business lines,” said Cara Peck, Executive Vice President, Talent Planning and Development Services, Wells Fargo (No. 11). Peck notes that leadership development is 10 percent learning in traditional classes, 20 percent mentoring and 70 percent real-life experiences.

4. Not Using Employee-Resource Groups for Leadership Training. These groups offer remarkable opportunities for cross-functional leadership training, especially for learning new skills not directly related to current job responsibilities. Marriott International (No. 13), for example, recently repositioned its groups as Talent Network Groups to reflect this emphasis.

5. Infrequent Discussions Regarding Status of High Potentials. Including business leaders in the assessment of high-potential progress at annual review time is crucial. At Sodexo, “Retention risk is part of the discussion and part of the action planning with regard to the pipeline,” said Sandy Harris, Vice President, Corporate Diversity Strategy & Internal Operations. Each business segment has an annual process to identify and outline development plans for high-potentials.

6. An increasingly important trend is having frequent conversations, as TD Bank does, so there are no surprises if someone is heading off track. The conversations must be frank, open and held consistently, said Verba.

Latest Best Practices