ATD Blog

How to Develop High Potentials

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

People often ask us: How can managers best work with and retain high-potential employees?

The first task is to define what it means to be high potential. Typically, this means strong performance on key outcome measures. However, this can be a very misleading approach because it’s possible for someone to achieve great metrics in unhealthy ways.

We’re currently working with a sales organization where the top performer is universally disliked and distrusted. He makes his numbers, but at the expense of the team and even of the organization.

According to the metrics, he is a top performer, but he doesn’t reflect the attitudes and values of the company and, as such, is not a good representative of the organization.


The true high potentials are those who have both a deep purpose to create a greater social good, an intense drive to achieve it, and at least some history of achieving good metrics. The best way to develop these high potentials is to guide them through three issues:

  1. Clarify their purpose. Have them write two to three sentences about the greater social good they want to create. Have them test the power of their purpose by reading it to someone else. If they’re truly excited when reading it, they have identified their true purpose. If not, have them rewrite it until it has a lot of energy and passion.
  2. Create a path to mastery. Have them define a plan in which they focus on a particular set of developmental topics each month. Typically there is a specific focus each month for about four to five months. In the first month, the path should focus on their values. The next two months focus on foundational functional skills. Months four and five focus on influencing their immediate team members and increasing their contribution to the larger organization.
  3. Find role models and ask these role models about their purpose and path to mastery. Have your high potentials apply this learning to their own thinking.

Notice that we did a minimum of overt "skill building" (though there is some). Rather than focusing on skills, developing high potentials is always about fostering values and attitudes—and ultimately leadership.

About the Author

William Seidman is a recognized thought leader and expert on how to develop and sustain high-performing organizations. In particular, he is renowned for understanding the processes required to discover and use expert wisdom to create extraordinary organizational performance. William holds a doctorate from Stanford University, where he spent eight years studying management decision making. As part of his doctoral dissertation, he developed a groundbreaking technique for analyzing management decision making. The technique is the core of Strategy to Action methodology and has been recognized by KMWorld, The Innovation Center, IDC, and others.

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