Filling the Leadership Pipeline: An Updated Perspective

by Julie Winkle Giulioni | Posted | Leadership

Filling the Leadership Pipeline: An Updated Perspective

In today's environment, identifying and developing leadership talent is a mission-critical priority for most organizations - one that will make or break future success. That's why countless hours are spent identifying high potential candidates, filling the pipeline and developing future leaders. Yet many executives and human resources professionals wonder if the effort is paying off. And this question always lingers in the background: are current processes up to the challenge?

Pipeline population practices

For decades, organizations have endeavored to sift through the workforce and identify those individuals who are well-suited to move up and through the organization. The tried-and-true 9-Box grid model for building talent pools has been the standard tool of the trade when it comes to high potential (HiPo) selection. It involves evaluating employees based upon a variety of criteria including such things as aspirations, abilities, engagement, social skills, drive, performance, character, capacity and motivation.

Individuals are plotted on a 3 x 3 matrix ranging from "underperformer" and "enigma" to the upper right corner where "future leaders" live. These identified future leaders are then vetted through layers of leadership in what are frequently referred to as calibration meetings, and those who emerge are fed into the pipeline for development and more.

Problems with the process

But this fairly standard approach faces scrutinization in many organizations. Questions are being raised about whether the traditional system can meet the needs of today's diverse and dynamic workplace. Leaders ask questions such as:

  • How should we define potential today and into the future?
  • What does potential look like in an environment that's characterized by uncertainty and ambiguity?
  • What characteristics are most predictive of future leadership success?
  • What role should current performance play? Machine learning and artificial intelligence promise new and different jobs in the future. So, how does effectiveness in a role that might or might not exist inform an assessment of potential?
  • Who should do the evaluation of potential? Given an increasingly distributed workforce, do leaders have the visibility they need to make informed assessments?
  • What role does bias play and how can we mitigate what we know is a real and human dynamic?
  • Why are we limiting our efforts to a few HiPos? What if we treated the entire talent pool as HiPos and invited them into the pipeline?

Modernizing the plumbing

In response to questions like these and others, many organizations are challenging traditional thinking as well as updating their systems and approaches to better meet their talent pipeline needs today. They're rethinking the core criteria, profiling process and the development commitment that follows.

Core criteria

Concerned that previously valued characteristics served the needs of yesterday's organization, those charged with the leadership pipeline are considering today's observable criteria that could be effective predictors of future leadership success. They are still gravitating toward those who perform well, but they're not looking exclusively at ability. They're considering the role of effort, knowing that it supports a growth mindset - which will be needed even more by future leaders. They're also looking at candidates' levels of learning agility, self-awareness and ability to embrace ambiguity and change. DDI research has identified ten high-potential factors that include such characteristics as receptivity to feedback, culture fit and adaptability. And individuals who fit these evolving criteria can look very different from the traditional HiPo.

Profiling process

Similar to other dimensions of organizational life, the HiPo identification process benefits from a renewed focus on diversity and inclusion. In an effort to develop a more inclusive HiPo system, organizations are exploring how to draw upon more voices in the identification of candidates. With ever-increasing management spans of control and so many employees working remotely, it's not always realistic to expect that direct supervisors are in the best position to identify potential. Colleagues, customers and employees, however, might have a clearer line of sight. So, experiments are underway to tap these additional data sources systematically and rigorously. Additionally, the old-style "senior leader only" calibration meetings may not offer the diversity of experience required to adequately advance a different HiPo profile. Expanding these conversations with additional perspectives can offer a necessary reality check.

Development commitment

Finally, it's dawning on organizations that development is a long game. The past practice of dropping HiPos off the list or out of the program when performance slips is increasingly viewed as punitive and unproductive. Growth is messy and rarely occurs in a straight-line progression. Leaders must make a commitment to stick with HiPo candidates through bad days as well as the good-which sends a strong message to those future leaders and the organization as a whole.

Talent is an organization's most powerful differentiator and only sustainable competitive advantage. Guiding that talent forward isn't a pipe dream... it's a pipeline filled with ready and willing future leaders.

Cracking the Code to High Potentials

Learn how to attract and retain your best talent with Dr. Henryk Krajewski.


Watch On-Demand
Cover of the book
Cover of the book

Cracking the Code to High Potentials

Learn how to attract and retain your best talent with Dr. Henryk Krajewski.


Watch On-Demand


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