How Do You Differentiate and Develop Talent Without Leaving Others Behind?

This post was first published in SmartBlog on Leadership January
23, 2014.

I recently asked readers to submit their burning leadership development questions. Those that get picked for a post will receive a free copy of my eBook.

This one from Susan Broussard (permission to
use full name):

“We have started a leadership development program among the top
performers in our company. We are working on development and succession so that
we are better prepared for the coming retirements.  The program is not a
secret, and we have talked openly about it to all employees. My challenge is
the grumbling and engagement among those not in the group.  How do I
differentiate and develop talent without leaving others behind?”

Susan, your question is one that talent
management professionals have been struggling with since the early cave people
selected their high potentials to be the next tribe leaders.

Whenever you differentiate based on
performance (or perceived potential), and make the results public, it’s
inevitable that there will be resentment from those that did not come out on
top towards those that did.

Some would argue that with the influx of the
“everyone gets a trophy” generation, it’s going to be even more of a challenge
to differentiate.

Yet when it comes to high potential programs,
many of the experts are telling us that the benefits of transparency outweigh
the potential backlash.

According to research conducted by the Center
for Creative Research (CCL), 77% of high-potential leaders surveyed reported
that being formally identified as a “high potential” was highly important to them.

Furthermore, knowing one’s status as a high potential has a significant impact
on retention. Of those formally identified, only 14% were currently seeking
other employment compared to 33% who were not formally informed by their

So – while transparency is good for your high
performers and high potentials, what about the rest of your employees? There
are some things you can do to minimize the backlash, or feeling of being left

1. Be as clear and transparent as possible as to how participants
are selected.

Letting people know the selection criteria
helps clear up some of the mystery behind why someone was selected and why
others were not. It also helps provide developmental targets to those not

2. Use a comprehensive selection process.

Some organizations allow employees to submit
an application for leadership development programs, along with minimum
requirements. Their managers can approve or disapprove, and then a selection
committee makes the final decisions. This at least gives everyone a chance,
casts a wide net, and provides feedback to those not selected as to why not.
Others use formal assessment centers or tools to assess potential to attempt to
be more objective.

3. Train managers how to give feedback.

Managers need to learn how to have candid
conversations with their employees about their performance and potential. If
they are not being honest, then employees won’t understand why they were not
selected. With regular and candid feedback, there should be no surprises and
each individual gets development that’s appropriate for their unique
development needs.

4. Provide development for ALL employees.

A high potential program is just ONE type of
program. Every employee, no matter where you fall on
a 9
box matrix
, deserves some kind of development. It’s just
a different kind of development. See
Leadership Development Strategies for a Performance and Potential Matrix
for a complete list for all nine boxes.

BTW, there’s potential adverse behavioral
side effects for those that do get
selected for the program too!

important to let people know that being selected is no guarantee of a
promotion. It’s a developmental opportunity, and it’s up to them to make the
most of it. It’s not a life-time membership; it’s only a point-in-time
designation. Be very clear as to what it means to be a high potential and what
it doesn’t mean.