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Leadership Training for Your High-Potential Employees

Your high-potential employees aren't going to take over the world on their own. Here's how you can help them help you.
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In an earlier column I wrote about traits shared by high-potential employees.  Now that you can identify who they are, how to do you get the most out of them?

One way to move from high potential to high performance is with a leadership training program--one that’s uniquely suited to the entrepreneurial environment, and to your company in particular. Here’s how to make sure yours is a success.

Identify the appropriate skill mix

One reason leadership training often fails is that it isn’t matched to the needs of the organization. You spend all this time and money to train your best and brightest, and then there isn’t any way for them to apply their newfound skills within your company. So think hard about:

  • The maturity of your company. The leadership skills necessary to rally people around a start-up effort are not the same as those needed to create a stable organizational structure. Your team may require yet another set of leadership skills once the organizational structure is solidified.
  • The needs of different business units. The folks who sell to consumers may look at leadership quite differently than those who sell to businesses, and your controller may have a whole different take on things. Leadership training should be tailored to the business needs of each unit.

Assure legitimization of the program 

Not everyone reacts to the prospect of attending leadership training with open arms and overwhelming joy. Many people regard leadership training as a time-consuming exercise long on tokenism and short on entertainment. The success of any program depends on getting the organizational Gatekeepers on board early, and making it clear to them—and everyone in the organization—that the program is relevant and of consequence.

At a big company, it's easy to identify the Gatekeepers, because they tend to have big fancy titles. At a start-up, it's a little trickier. But at any organization, there are a few individuals who really matter. It could be one of the founders, or it could be the hotshot COO recruited by your investors. It is important to have their buy-in well before the program becomes reality. With steady input from Gatekeepers, the program can be tailored to fit the express needs of the organization, which will help give the participants a sense of ownership regarding the training.  Clear endorsement from the Gatekeepers legitimizes the high-potential training program, and participants are more likely to be truly engaged in the program.

Use multiple training techniques

The best leadership programs are engaging.  In thirty years of teaching, I’ve learned how important it is to vary learning modalities. What does that mean? The most successful leadership training balances illustrative stories, analytical lectures, interactive games, and relevant case material.  Ideally, the lectures support the case material, and the games reinforce the lectures. Combined, they give participants a full, immersive learning experience.

In any high-potential training program, there needs to be a good deal of face-to-face interaction to help establish group cohesion. But you should also support your program with social media, long-distance learning, and interactive techniques. 

Provide a take-away and follow-up

Participants need something solid to bring home, be it a list of principles, a plan they can put into action, or a comprehensive manual. Having the important take-aways in a tangible form makes it easier for participants to continuously apply the material in their daily work.

If you really want your high-potential leadership program to impact the organizational culture, establish an alumni group, making the most of chat rooms, newsletters, videoconferencing, and social media to keep everyone in touch. Ongoing interaction among the program’s alumni helps them to engage in continuous learning and expand their knowledge of the material.

Finally, keep the Gatekeepers involved.  Gatekeepers can give program participants a sense that they have accomplished something important, and reinforce their value to the organization.

Last updated: Aug 21, 2012

SAMUEL B. BACHARACH | Columnist | Director, Cornell's Institute of Workplace Studies

Samuel B. Bacharach is the McKelvey-Grant professor in the department of organizational behavior at Cornell University's ILR School, and is director of Cornell's Institute for Workplace Studies in New York City. Among his books are Get Them on Your Side and Keep Them on Your Side. His latest volume, A Good Idea Is Not Enough: Leading for Change and Innovation, will be published this November by BLG.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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