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High performers, the A-players, contribute more, innovate more, work smarter, earn more trust, display more resourcefulness, take more initiative, develop better business strategies, and find ways to get the job done in less time with less cost," says Bradford Smart in Topgrading, a book about hiring better and promoting high performers. Research by US-based best practice insight and technology company Corporate Executive Board (CEB) in 2014 showed that high-potential employees bring 91% more value to their organizations by enhancing the leadership bench strength. Also, such organizations enjoy double the revenue and profit growth compared to those with a weaker bench strength.

Organizations recognize that any shortfall in key talent can jeopardize the execution of business strategy, especially in a fiercely competitive global environment, and are not averse to investing substantial resources in recruiting, nurturing and retaining top talent. According to research and advisory services firm Bersin by Deloitte’s 2014 Corporate And Learning Factbook, of the total global corporate training spending of $130 billion (about 8.8 trillion), leadership development accounted for as much as 35%.

It is disconcerting, however, that according to CEB’s 2014 talent report, 55% of the high-potential candidates dropped out of the leadership development process within five years. These programmes work to groom high-potential employees and reinforce their belief in the organization’s ability and willingness to address their career aspirations.

However, the report also says that 64% of the high-potential employees were dissatisfied with their development experiences. Evidently, the benefits of leadership development initiatives aren’t commensurate with investment. So what’s the problem?

Choosing wrong candidates

CEB research, which used sample data from 6.6 million people across 10,000 clients globally, shows that 50% of organizations did not have systems in place to identify high-potential employees. It is not uncommon, for instance, for companies to identify their high-potential employees through a nomination process. This is fraught with likely biases, for high performers may be nominated more from the perspective of motivation and retention, rather than potential, or conversely, managers might refrain from nominating their star performers for fear of losing them to the larger pool.

Another favoured approach is to identify high-potential employees based on performance ratings.

High performance, however, may not necessarily be concomitant with high potential. While a superlative track record is certainly a prerequisite, high potential is marked by three additional critical attributes—aspiration for senior and more responsible roles, the ability to play those roles effectively, and the engagement represented by a high degree of commitment and loyalty to the organization. “In the context of succession planning, it is important for organizations to take a broader and futuristic perspective," says Mumbai-based Yogi Sriram, senior vice-president, corporate human resources (HR) at engineering firm Larsen & Toubro Ltd. “A portfolio of skills, including the flair for consensus building, the ability to manage multiple stakeholders, emotional intelligence, patience and, most importantly, the ability to selectively draw upon these competencies to address a diverse range of situations is vital for leadership development," he adds.

Identification of the right people is, therefore, critical for organizations to get the bang for their buck in the leadership development space.

Cultural readiness

Leadership development is a painstaking process, with its success depending on the symphonic orchestration of developmental tools like structured training, exposure to a multitude of experiences through stretch roles and assignments, rotation to different business verticals and geographies, and robust mentoring. “We nurture and groom the fast trackers to reach their full potential by providing opportunities to work on strategic projects in an environment marked by entrepreneurial freedom. People are given a chance to gain visibility and build their brand through exposure to international markets, in addition to recognition and monetary rewards," says Mumbai-based Anita Belani, HR head at BMR Advisors, a professional services firm.

Rajan Kaicker, executive chairman and managing director, India and South Asia, at FranklinCovey, a global company specializing in performance improvement, points out that the key to any leadership development initiative lies in organizational readiness and processes that can translate beliefs into action.

Organizations sometimes rush into leadership development interventions because it seems to be the done thing, the flavour of the season if you will, without assessing their own readiness for it. A number of well-intentioned interventions fall by the wayside in the absence of this. Kaicker cites the example of an organization where high-potential employees had been put through executive coaching without clear communication about the context. This had proved counterproductive, as the participants slipped into a panicky state, wondering if a shortfall in their performance had triggered the coaching initiative.

Deficiency in sponsorship

A leadership development initiative has slim chance of succeeding in the absence of strong senior management sponsorship, not just in terms of providing the necessary budgets, but also participation and support. Executive search firm Korn Ferry’s 2015 Real World Leadership study, covering 7,500 respondents from 107 countries, cites the “lack of executive sponsorship" as the biggest barrier to successful leadership development.

“Leadership development is the outcome of an arduous and a protracted process," says Kaicker, “that yields results only over a medium- to long-term horizon. Moreover, even with the deployment of scientific and structured tools like leadership-style inventories, behavioural interviews, personality assessments and 360-degrees feedback, some degree of subjectivity cannot be ruled out, and the process, therefore, may not generate perfect results. As a result, organizations need to have an appetite for some amount of risk," he says.

Skill gap

Leadership development initiatives undoubtedly call upon managers to play a key role in developing their high-potential employees by providing career-enhancing job rotation opportunities. This entails, besides a high degree of confidence, some critical skills like stakeholder management, coaching and influencing.

Managers may not necessarily be adept at all this. Kaicker says it has as much to do with the lack of skills as the lack of seriousness. He cites the example of an organization that sought to inculcate coaching skills by putting over 100 senior leaders through a coaching programme—a year down the line, not more than 50% of the participants had actually engaged in coaching conversations.

A successful leadership development strategy, therefore, calls for an eclectic blend of elements and, most of all, cultural readiness in terms of the will and skill of stakeholders in playing their roles effectively.

Charu Sabnavis is a learning and organizational development facilitator and founder director of Delta Learning.

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