How are you identifying “hi-po” leaders?

Graphic of business people standing on brightly-colored puzzle piecesWhat are you doing to make sure the right people are in your Emerging Leaders program?

Assessing your current workforce allows you to evaluate who’s ready for advancement and training.

But while the usual practice is to select the high-potential (a.k.a. “hi-po”) individuals, that’s not always the wisest option. It’s an acceptable starting point, but we need to remember that high-potential employees are often classified as such by alert, aware managers – in other words, by the managers who are excellent leaders themselves.

What potential is lurking in other areas of your organization, and how can you discover it when their managers aren’t already sponsoring them?

I’ll answer that question in a moment. I want to first address the question of what to do with these people once you’ve found them.

Where does leadership capacity begin to be developed? How and when are management practices and habits acquired?

You’ll notice that the second question doesn’t ask about “good management practices and habits.” And that points directly at the answer to the question.

Leadership capacity and the ways in which a manager functions – those practices and habits – starts when an individual is promoted from team member to manager.

As a manager yourself, you, like everyone I’ve talked with about this, undoubtedly remember that time. A client experiencing this transition exclaimed, “My whole world is upside down!” And that’s exactly what it’s like.

It’s simple enough: if a newly-promoted manager isn’t supported in learning how to manage and lead well, there’s a high risk that they’ll learn bad habits and practices. A CEB Global report, cited on Inc. magazine’s website, indicates that nearly two-thirds of managers fail in their first couple of years. And we know that many, if not most, employees who quit, do so because their manager has driven them to seek a better experience elsewhere.

If someone has earned a promotion to management, surely they’ve also earned the training and support to succeed in their new role. And if we want to avoid manager failure – and all the costs associated with it, including the cost of replacing them and the employees who quit because of them, not to mention the expense of their failed or delayed projects – then surely we can justify the cost of training and support.

I suggested earlier that it’s strategically smart to look beyond the obvious “hi-po” employees for your candidates for leadership training.

But how do you do that? How do you find the first-line managers who have potential, but aren’t being sponsored by their managers?

Here’s how: ask for applications.

Make it an open application process where anyone who wants to qualify for the training-and-support program have to submit a formal application.

I suggest these criteria:

  • Compile a set of questions requiring knowledge and understanding of your industry and your company. The answers should be essays, not multiple choice, in order to demonstrate the applicant’s written communication, critical thinking, and logic skills. Be careful not to expect manager-level thinking; remember, the whole point here is to qualify them for management and leadership training!
  • Ask them why they want to be a manager and leader. What does it mean to them personally? This is not the outdated question “where do you want to be in five years?” It’s about their values and desire, beyond the increase in pay, to advance and be a true leader.
  • Require a memo of recommendation from their immediate supervisor, at least one peer, and one other manager within the company.
  • Consider blind submissions, if at all possible. We know, sadly, that certain identifying characteristics – name, gender, race, and so on – often trigger bias, whether unconscious or overt.
  • Convene a panel of five to review and rank the applications. Make sure they have clear guidelines for accuracy and readability. Ask the panel to review each application individually, and then meet as a group to go over the top candidates. How many they ultimately accept is, obviously, dependent on how you design the training-and-support program – in-house, outsourced, time span, budget, and so on.

When you leave it up to managers to select employees for professional development programs, there’s an aspect of randomness to it; it depends entirely on those managers, who may or may not be aware, or have the time, and so on. To the individual employee, it appears largely out of their control, based on whether their manager recognizes and acknowledges their hard work, “likes” them, and wants to reward them.

By conducting the selection process in this way, the candidates are more involved, more engaged, and more likely to fully participate in the training program. You’ll also discover some hidden gems in your employee population that might otherwise have gone unnoticed – and perhaps have simply gone, off to a company where their qualities and talents are appreciated and rewarded.

Obviously, this takes some time and effort.

But given the risks involved, and the potential reward, isn’t it worth it?


I think I hear you thinking … who has time to do all that?!

I can help. And probably for a lot lower cost than you might expect. Put yourself on my calendar and we’ll talk about what you’re doing now, and how I might be able to help. No obligation, no pressure, no problem!

Schedule a Call

gljudson Management & Leadership