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4 Critical Tasks for Building the C-Suite Bench

Authored by: Roger Pearman and Robert Eichinger

We all know the critical importance of building the bench that backs up the C-Suite. The organization’s momentum depends upon Ready Now candidates for C-Suite openings.   All the great business strategies of the world cannot overcome a lack of bench strength.

The proposition is simple. The ideal is that for every expected or unexpected opening of a C-Suite position, there must be one or more Ready Now candidates. These individuals need to be equal to or more effective than those they are replacing. They are strong performers from day one and get better as time passes.

Prior to that day, there are things that need to be done over the course of each candidate’s full career– about 30 years’ worth of things. What are these things and who’s responsible for them?

Acquiring the right talent from the start is critical. An organization hires a 22-year-old college graduate who, under the right circumstances, lands in the C-Suite 30 years later, to everyone’s joy. For this to happen there are foundational, building and honing experiences to be had.

Who is on the short list of those responsible for this developing bench?

The Board, CEO, C-Suite Executives, CHRO, Talent Management Professionals, all managers (bosses) of candidates throughout their career, and the candidate.

The candidates are generally referred to as High Potentials. Potential means having the motivation and potential to learn and grow into an effective C-Suite Officer over the 30-year development journey.

No bench exists if you do not start with early-in-career High Potentials. Period. And you must retain them. Period. And develop them. Period.  If you have to keep filling positions with candidates from the outside, the organization will be less successful than with internally grown talent, and you will have felt the negative impact of those costs to your bottom line. 

Bench Graphic

4 Critical Tasks for Building the C-Suite Bench


Task One is sourcing, screening, hiring, onboarding, and supporting some number of High Potentials. Roughly 5% of college graduate candidates have the characteristics normally used to describe and assess Potential. If distribution was equal (it is not), 5 out of every 100 hires might be High Potentials. If an organization has a special program to look for high potentials, more might be verified. The organizations that do not pursue High Potentials may find that they have none. They are rare and expensive.

Task One
Responsibilities for each of the following for “Hiring High Potentials”

  • Board – Requires that CEO and CHRO provide back-up candidate list
  • CEO – Understands the nature of Potential and supports funding; gives “goosebump” speeches about the importance of talent
  • C-Suite – Understands the nature of Talent Development and supports special selection programming in their areas of responsibility
  • CHRO – Hires great Talent Management Professionals; positions special selection efforts to the C-Suite
  • Talent Management Professionals – Creates programming to source and hire High Potentials
  • Bosses – Willing to consider candidates that don’t exactly fit their current needs but see the future benefit for the organization
  • High Potentials – Accept a position with an organization roughly in line with values

Task One has two difficulties. Line management (bosses with open jobs) prefer candidates who can hit the ground running. Their resumes and academic orientation are specific to the opening, perhaps supported by summer jobs and/or internships specific to the requirements of the opening.  Although some line managers might give lip service to funding a C-Suite position 30 years later, they are mostly “here and now” oriented and likely focused on making the quarterly numbers.  

Supervisors and managers who are hiring individual contributors for early career jobs do not have a long-term mindset, yet. They also do not have much experience managing and developing High Potentials and they are not good at assessing them. Most of the candidate recruiting is done by hiring managers who do not yet have the knowledge necessary to find High Potentials, putting aside they also may not want the trouble these individuals tend to bring.

All this means the Talent Management Professionals must be active in the candidate screening and selection process. They have to prevail. They have to convince reluctant hiring managers to make a (perceived) selection risk. They need to know the science of Potential and must have great influencing skills.

Task Two is providing the Foundation upon which careers are built. Train them in the basics. Add to their lessons of experience. Place them in three jobs over a nine-year time frame, with three or more bosses and on three or more teams.   

Task Two
Responsibilities for each of the following for “Providing the Foundation”

  • Board – Not much involvement
  • CEO – Is aware of the High Potential corps; supports and funds programming to give them the needed experiences and exposures
  • C-Suite – Pays attention to the High Potentials in their area of responsibility; gives them special attention 
  • CHRO – Tasks the Talent Management function to assure good things are happening with the High Potentials
  • Talent Management Professionals – Creates programming to develop High Potentials; active in tracking
  • Bosses – Provides developmental opportunities and teaches lessons of work
  • High Potentials – Learns and performs

This Foundation stage is focused on learning the lessons of work. Basically, High Potentials are learning about most everything. They are doing, observing, listening,  attending learning events and meeting lots of different people.  The difference between a High Potential and Low Potential is that the High Potential learns lessons they will use later in their career. They accumulate learnings. They get materially better as they perform and they get promoted more often.

They have on average three jobs at this formative stage. The more variety in the jobs, the better. They’ve watched three or more bosses manage well (or not). They witness the typical things that happen in organizations. They begin to be noticed and begin to form networks that will come into play later.

Task Three is Building for the Future, where High Potentials begin to form the skills needed later, at higher levels of responsibility and complexity.

Task Three
Responsibilities of each of the following for “Building the Skills Needed for the Future”

  • Board – Demands development of the Bench
  • CEO – Understands 70/20/10/25. Demands diversity and variety of future aligned assignments; begins to sponsor and mentor selected “up and comers”
  • C-Suite – Understands 70/20/10/25. Directs aggressive assignmentology in their areas of responsibility; supports developmental transfers; begins to sponsor and mentor selected High Potentials
  • CHRO – Aggressively manages assignmentology
  • Talent Management Professionals – Aggressively manages assignmentology and engagement
  • Bosses – Willing to consider candidates that don’t exactly fit their current needs, for the future benefit of the organization; retains talent.
  • High Potentials – Seeks adventures; accepts guidance; build networks

Learners learn best by doing. Experience is the best teacher. For High Potentials, it’s essential that the jobs are diverse, tough and unique. Research says 70% of the lessons of leadership (C-Suite service) come from challenging assignments. 

Conceptually, you are putting people into three, increasingly senior jobs that they have never done before! These jobs are functionally different, geographically different,  product or service line different, level different, team different and line of bosses different.

Assignmentology involves filling open jobs (that directly account for your bonus) with trainees! Sharp, and with a performance record, but trainees in a new job. And, while impressive, they’ll be harder to manage. At this stage senior management is hiring trainees to fill key jobs. It’s normal for them to resist. Most would rather have a proven performer in this specific type of job.  So, the CEO, C-Suite, CHRO and Talent Management have to do the heavy lifting to make it happen. 

These trainees will end their 18-month stay as strong performers, will add (and leave behind) their creativity and innovate, and their bosses will resist losing them!

You have to retain talent to benefit from hiring and developing talent, so engagement of High Potentials is critical for retention. The retention of High Potentials is different from general retention.  High Potentials respond to certain aspects of engagement, such as being listened to. Typical managers are not very good at this. High Potentials want to be with a winning team, are elite in many ways and expect to be treated as such, to include special developmental opportunities. Talent Management Professionals need to be aggressively involved in High Potential engagement as most managers are not well informed enough to do it on their own.

The Final Task is Honing. Think of it as “High Potential Finishing School“, or as making sure the skills needed at their C-Suite destination are fully enabled. At this point they are vetted and validated High Potentials. Their six or more jobs and six or more bosses all agree. They are the best we have and are consensus candidates for top openings. 

Task Four
Responsibilities of each of the following for “Honing the skills needed for the future.” 

  • Board – Begins to meet the candidates; in some cases sponsoring and mentoring
  • CEO – Takes a personal interest in as many candidates as they can handle
  • C-Suite – Takes personal responsibility for managing any High Potentials currently in their area of responsibility
  • CHRO – Works the lists the Board wants to see, including the back-up charts
  • Talent Management Professionals – Works on engagement and retention
  • Bosses – Works on engagement and retention; offers special finishing opportunities
  • High Potentials – Leverages network: clears the final bars for the C-Suite

Building the bench for today’s C-Suite started 30 years ago (or should have). There are 100 things that have to be done over those 30 years for it all to work. Any lack of attention or focus or support along the way will decrease the quality of the bench and will force external searches, which are both expensive and prone to landing candidates less prepared that those you develop internally 

At the end of this school year, there will be 500 new hires that will end up being the CEO of one of the Fortune 500 firms in 30 years. This point should get your talent management juices flowing.

During our collective 100 years in the talent consulting business, the most frequent request we’ve received is to help organizations with executive succession, because they are weak in bench strength. It means that past Boards, CEOs, C-Suite Officers, CHROs, Talent Management Professionals, and Bosses have not done the right things along the way.

Following the tips outlined above, organizations and leaders have a much greater opportunity to get it right.

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