Developing the Leadership Skills of High-Potential Employees

Despite the lean times that lie ahead, the great challenges facing our nation and the need for more effective government call out for investing in the development of a new generation of leaders.
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Should government offer more leadership opportunities to junior-level employees with high potential? -Federal Manager (YF-03), Department of the Army

Despite the lean times that lie ahead, the great challenges facing our nation and the need for more effective government call out for investing in the development of a new generation of leaders.

Of course, knowing you need to invest in a future leadership corps is not enough. You also need to determine the best approach so that you see a real return in the form of cost savings, employee engagement and agency performance.

Last week, my organization, the Partnership for Public Service, hosted a conversation with agency leaders and public and private sector experts about effectively developing high-potential employees. The group included authorities from the Office of Personnel Management, the Merit Systems Protection Board and PDRI, a research and consulting firm in the field of industrial-organizational psychology.

Here are some of the insights discussed by the group to provide you with a starting point for taking the next steps to support the leadership development of your future leaders.

1. Look at the return on investment - Start by showing your senior leadership the costs and benefits of assessing, identifying and developing high-potential employees for leadership positions. The private sector has great data about the benefits, including higher employee engagement, sales and profit. These data points offer great insights, but you may want to develop more relevant measures for your agency. You need to determine how much time and money you spend on employee assessment, development programs and recruiting. Then you must demonstrate how this investment has benefited your agency and its mission, and, if possible, show how increasing this commitment for junior-level employees may have an even bigger and long-term impact.

2. Define "high-potential"
- Once you gain support to invest in your agency's high-potential employees, you need to define the term "high-potential." As the experts from PDRI noted, you need to look beyond high-performance in a current job to see which of your employees have the interpersonal and cognitive skills as well as the capacity to lead and an ability to continuously learn. And to ensure that you are using a definition consistent with all of your agency's relevant rules and regulations, turn to your internal HR colleagues for help.

3. Find the diamonds in the rough - To help identify high-potential employees, consider using cognitive tests and simulations, including online or live action and assessment centers in addition to the typical interview process. Of course, the challenge will be cost, so you'll need to account for these evaluations in your notional return on investment calculations.

4. Invest your time and resources in supporting high-potentials - Once you find your future leaders, you need to commit to their development. As I've noted in previous columns, formal leadership development programs are an important foundation, but you should also encourage your high-potential employees to go beyond the classroom and participate in peer coaching, mentoring, executive coaching and stretch assignments. And remember, the most significant investment should be the time your current leaders are spending developing your agency's future leaders. This is one area that won't require new appropriations, but it will require a renewed commitment on the part of your senior leadership.

Please share specific stories and ideas around how you and your agency are taking the right steps to assess, identify and develop your high-potential leaders by adding a comment below, or sending an email to

This post was originally published by the Washington Post.

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