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Someone else just got the promotion you were eyeing. Despite your best efforts, it seems some of your colleagues are on the fast track while you're feeling left behind.

It's not an uncommon feeling in many organizations. The grooming of high-potential employees as future leaders can be a mysterious process, with workers unsure about just what senior managers are looking for, or how they decide which employees have high potential. And while staff may be puzzled, many companies are equally in the dark in that they don't have a specific program to cultivate their next round of managers.

In fact, a new survey of 500 personnel managers of Canadian and U.S. companies found that 49 per cent of organizations don't consider grooming potential leaders a high priority – and only 16 per cent think their organizations are effective at identifying and retaining top talent.

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The survey also found that in at least half of companies, employees perceive the talent development process as unfair and political or flawed, even if run with good intentions.

"This a scary situation as companies gear up to recover from a recession. Canadian organizations that don't have a clear talent management program could see their top talent jump ship, while leaving other employees disgruntled," warned John Wright, president and managing director of the Canadian Management Centre in Toronto, an affiliate of the American Management Association that did the study.

The message for Canadian companies is to make their leadership development more open and democratic, career experts advise.

Otherwise, employees will be left feeling unappreciated and unsure whether they have a future with the organization, Mr. Wright said. "As the economy improves and creates more opportunities, all it will take is to have a couple of top performers leave and everyone else will be polishing their résumés to start looking for an employer who shows more appreciation of their talent."


"Companies often don't come right out and tell you if you're in the 'high potential' pool. They are concerned you might get too entitled or full of yourself," said Dan McCarthy, a former corporate human resources manager and now head of executive development programs at the University of New Hampshire's Whittemore School of Business and Economics.

"Also, if they tell you that you are in, they then have to tell you when you are out. And that's an uncomfortable conversation most ... managers would rather avoid," he said.

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Jealousy can also be a factor, Mr. McCarthy noted: "The reality is, leadership talent development programs are meant to single out 5-to-10 per cent of employees who are seen as having the most potential for leadership. That leaves 90 per cent who think they should be among them. "Meanwhile, most people – if asked where they think they rank among employees in the organization – would put themselves in the top 10 to 20 per cent in terms of their performance and potential."


Make the program transparent

"Senior managers should identify high-potential employees to develop based on objective criteria that are clearly stated, and not just because they like the person," recommended Sandra Edwards, senior vice-president of AMA Enterprise in New York, who analyzed the study results.

"Clarity and honest feedback on what 'high potentials' [employees]have to do to be selected makes everyone feel more comfortable about the process. We find the big international companies are doing the best on this," she said.

And, when looking at corporate performance, those companies with a formal talent-development curricula and senior management support for training had higher revenue, market share and customer satisfaction than those that didn't make it a priority.

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Open it to nominations

The leadership development process should allow employees who aspire to leadership to nominate themselves and demonstrate they are worthy of consideration, Ms. Edwards said.

Offer development at all levels

"No matter where an employee is in the organization," she said, "there should be development opportunities to encourage people to continue to improve their skills and feel they can make an important contribution" – even if it's not in management.

Expand mentoring

As organizations become leaner, they may rely more on external training to develop the next round of leaders. This should be combined with internal mentorship from experienced managers who have insights about what is unique about the company. They can also draw from mistakes they made as they moved into management, and help the leaders-in-training avoid doing the same.



You're not on the list

If you're no longer in the loop for meetings and memos, investigate whether it's an oversight or if there is a deeper issue, suggests Dan McCarthy, head of executive development programs at University of New Hampshire's Whittemore School of Business and Economics.

Your mentor sours on you

Your calls aren't being returned or if you do get a meeting with your mentor, it's rushed. "Clearly the chemistry is gone and it's not a relationship you should pursue," he said. "Look for a new mentor."

They're not checking in

You aren't being called in by managers for development discussions. If that's happening, take the initiative to update your progress.

Training requests are denied

The budget may be tight, but employees deemed to have high potential will get priority. You may have to take your own initiative to develop the skills that someone in management didn't believe you have. By filling perceived gaps, you can get back on the radar.

No more big assignments

This is an indication that management thinks you're already stretched too thin and are letting your job slip. If you're not performing at the top of your game, your boss won't risk offering you any more opportunity or time to take on a broader role.



Want to be noticed by senior managers? Some tips to get noticed:

Strive to be a top performer

Nothing stands out like success. The survey found the first things organizations rely on to pick potential leaders are performance reviews.

Make your name known

"To be seen as leadership timber, you have to be well enough known by managers that they can form an opinion of your potential. Deliver great results, put your hand up regularly when new opportunities arise and talk about your successes as a function of your contribution to the team," said Karen Wright, managing director of Parachute Executive Coaching in Toronto.

Take charge

"You're the boss of your career, so don't sit back and wait to be picked; let management know you want to move into leadership and look for opportunities to step up and say I'd like to contribute, Ms. Wright said

Ask for feedback

You may think you're ready to move up, but the mangers may have concerns. Ask for a meeting to discuss where the organization thinks your abilities lie and what skills still need to developing.

Seek out mentoring

"I've found that when people initiate mentoring, in most cases people are flattered to be asked and are willing to share their expertise," Ms. Wright said.



Your company may not have a formal leadership program, but management still sends out signals when it spots an up-and-comer:

You gain new respect

Managers seems to have more time for you. They want your opinion and all of a sudden your jokes are funnier.

Gears are turning

Someone from human resources asks you for an updated résumé and photograph, a development plan, and asks if you are willing to move for the job. You're put in the limelight, perhaps being invited to be a guest trainer or speaker for internal training programs.

They're offering help

Managers invite you to élite training programs, offer mentors and executive coaches.

They want you to stretch

You're asked to work in an unfamiliar area or take on extra work to gain new experiences, most often in addition to your regular work.




Percentage of companies whose employees believe talent development is either flawed or unfair.


Percentage of companies that support development of high-potential employees but don't make it a priority.


Percentage of employers that do not announce criteria or invite employees to nominate themselves for leadership development.


Percentage of employers that make little or no effort to identify high-potential workers.


Percentage of companies in which efforts to identify high potentials are mostly informal.

Source: American Management Association survey of 500 Canadian and U.S. human resource managers.

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About the Author

Wallace Immen is an award-winning staff writer for The Globe and Mail whose stories about workplace trends and career advice, as well as about cruising and travel destinations around the world appear regularly in print and on-line. He has worn many hats in his career with the Globe, including science writer, medical writer and columnist, urban affairs reporter and travel writer. More

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