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The 7 Optimizing Points for Future Leader Development

Authored by: Roger Pearman and Robert Eichinger

A frequent question from talent management professionals and senior leaders goes like this: Can we shorten the time it takes to fund an open C-Suite or key functional and geographical leadership role with a well-prepared high potential candidate? And can we decrease the time it takes while assuring future success?

It depends upon what you mean by shorter and faster.

You want optimization. Can you optimize leadership development so that it takes less time and assures quality leadership? Yes.

It all starts with knowing who are the verified, validated and vetted high potentials in the employee pool. The research on nominating employees as high potentials is challenging. It says the judgments on potential are about 50% accurate over time. The nominations coming out of the talent review process are not very accurate nor enduring.  There are many false positives. Nominated people drop off the list over time. There are false negatives. People not nominated should have been and turn out later to be top talent. There are late bloomers. People not materially successful early who wake up and thrive middle to late career. This could change. Recently, several respected vendors have developed and started to offer valid and reliable surveys to assess potential.  Along with subjective nominations, this added science will increase the accuracy of the judgment calls.  

Leader Development Graphic
Can we shorten the time it takes to prepare for future leadership roles?
Optimization Point 1

Start with validated, vetted and verified science to identify high potentials, the ones that would benefit the most from developmental initiatives. This ensures developmental efforts and monies are not wasted.

Optimization Point 2

Start early. The more time you have to develop talent, the more likely you’ll see success. The longer the runway, the safer the landing. It could start as early as internships for college students, those summer engagements students fight to get. Internships are one way to begin to assess potential. Ninety days of evaluations and assessment. Rehire the best. Apply the science early. Have summer internship bosses complete the high potential surveys about two-thirds of the way through the experience. Woo the best.

Optimization Point 3

70/20/10. Research over the last 50 years has solidified an old meme. Experience is the best teacher. No shock. 70% of the leadership lessons learned by consensus successful senior leaders came from challenging assignments.  Full time jobs. Part time assignments. Events and situations (like VUCA crises) that were materially challenging. 20% of the leadership lessons learned came from others, mostly bosses. 10% came from miscellaneous learning opportunity like workshops, certification programs, off-sites, and eLearning. To optimize, future senior leaders would have to have a career full of challenging assignments.

Optimization Point 4

Generalized futures. For most, what will be needed to become a successful and flourishing senior leader is an uncertain mystery. In this case that means a generalized palette of developmental jobs. Over the 20 or so preparative years, placing your talent in one start-up, one fixit, one international, one strategic, one governance, one change management, one M&A and one scope (high complexity) assignment typically works well. The key point is that every assignment should have elements of a new challenge. Things should be new, different, unique, and innovative,  especially to the developing leader.

Optimal Optimization Point 5

At the pinnacle would be developmental assignments to specifically prepare the future leader for an estimated or known future. It’s called “future back” leadership development. In future back development planning, a strategic visioning exercise is focused on the challenges this organization is likely to be facing at set times in the future. Obviously, the further out the time, the less accurate it might be.  

Since getting a 20-year-old ready to successfully serve in a leadership position takes 20 years on average, projecting for a 20-years-out future would be the most optimal.


A Firm is starting to become more global. It already is in North America, Asia and Europe. Future markets are likely to include South America and Africa. So, before the developing leader gets to the final senior chair, they would benefit from a challenging assignment that touches on doing business in both South America and Africa.  

A Firm determines that the product and service lines offered to customers is going to involve more knowledge and navigation within governmental regulations. The developing leader would benefit from an assignment that interacts with local and global governments and lobbying organizations.  

A firm is very successful, is stashing cash and determines its future will include mergers and acquisitions to grow. The developing leader would benefit from being on a task force exploring possible acquisition topics and targets. The more specific the future back projections and estimates are, the more optimal leadership development will be.

A note on developmental assignments.  Although few disagree that experience is the best teacher, getting people into developmental assignments is difficult. To be developmental for any leader, the content of the assignment has to be new and different from anything they have done in the past. To the manager of the opening, they are being asked to take someone who will not “hit the ground running”.  They are not proven performers of the content of the job. While research and history predict they will learn quickly and contribute grandly during the second half of the assignment, bosses are often reluctant to take the chance. They want someone who has done the job before and has been successful at it. This dilemma is a major hurdle to optimizing leadership development.  

Optimization Point 6

Bosses and Mentors. 20% of the leadership lessons of success come from others, mostly bosses and mentors. In addition to every assignment being developmental, the booster that can be added is reporting to developmental bosses and having developmental mentors. They can fortify the lessons learned and add wisdom to the mix.

Optimization Point 7.

Exposures. Never let a crisis go by without engaging your developing High Potentials. This is a potential politically sensitive point. Up and coming, vetted, and verified high potentials need to be invited to observe and attend special events and meetings their current position and level might not support, such as VIP visits to the firm, executive offsites, board meetings, task forces, study and white paper efforts, visits to foreign markets, strategic meetings, lunch with senior executives. Seeing the pattern here? For the most part, they would be back benchers, there to observe and absorb.  

Optimization of developing leaders is finding real High Potentials as early as possible.  Use science to increase the accuracy of the assessment. Deploy them in either generalized or, better yet, specialized, challenging assignments reporting to developmental bosses and assigning them developmental mentors. Make every assignment developmental. Expose them to learning events on the side and engage them in the solution of other challenges the firm is trying to problem solve.

Speeding up or accelerating development without optimizing is probably not possible.

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