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Leadership Development: For the Talented Few, or For the Masses?

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Where can it make the most sense to invest finite development resources?

As organizations look to meet aggressive growth targets while continuing to manage significant uncertainty and risk, many are finding that they don’t have the right leaders in place to meet their goals. That’s why for many, leadership development is back in the spotlight. In fact, Deloitte’s recent Talent Edge 2020: Redrafting Talent Strategies for the Uneven Recovery survey found that leadership development and succession planning topped the list of pressing talent concerns. Today, many talent professionals are facing a tough decision: Should we invest in programs and tools targeting a small pool of high-potential talent, or is it smarter to focus on developing leadership at every level?

Here’s the debate:

In a perfect world we’d focus on everyone – but in reality, finite resources mean we need to zero in on high-potential leaders. That may have been true ten years ago, but today virtual tools and technologies can bring world-class leadership development resources to a wider group of people in a cost-effective manner.
For high-potential leaders, talent development is one of the most effective retention tools we have. The more we make investments there, the more likely we are to keep our leading people.    We need a broader pool than just the handful of people we hope to be our next leaders. Because the talented few are also the most sought after, they can be harder to retain – especially in an improved economy. If they decide to jump ship, we need a deep bench.
With today’s analytics capabilities, it’s possible to know with greater certainty which leaders have the most significant potential. Let’s use those targeted insights to our advantage and invest in the right leaders. Not so fast – analytics can help identify those with high potential, but it’s not foolproof. We need to cast a wider net with leadership development to make sure we’re not missing any diamonds in the rough.
Investing in high potential leaders is a smart strategy for attracting even more of the leaders we’ll need. If they know they can grow with us, they’ll send us their resumes. Since when do we broadcast our investments in the select few? If we want to attract people, we need broad-based programs that signal our commitment to developing leaders at different phases of their careers, throughout the organization. From there, we can funnel high-potential talent into elite programs.

Our take

Alice Kwan
Neil Neveras

Alice Kwan, U.S. Talent Services Leader, Principal, Deloitte Consulting LLP
Neil Neveras
, US Human Capital Leadership and Development Practice Leader, Senior Manager, Deloitte Consulting LLP


Are these options mutually exclusive?
We first heard this debate played out in a panel discussion a few months ago and since then we’ve heard it echoed in numerous conversations with clients. Suddenly they sense that they’ve reached a fork in the road: Invest in a few surefire leaders, or broaden the aperture?

At the risk of sounding like consultants, we would suggest that any serious talent organization should be able to do both. When it comes to top talent, let’s face it: Demographics are working against us. There are more top-notch leaders retiring over the next few years than there are younger leaders to fill their shoes. Purposeful, selective investments in high-potential leaders are a smart way to take steps to maintain a steady pipeline of top talent.

But in this environment, it hardly makes sense to invest in top talent at the expense of the rest of the organization. Leadership development can’t just be about the top leaders – there are people throughout your organization who are depended on every day for their strategic thinking, innovative capabilities and global perspectives. They should be constantly developing their skills if you want the organization to continue delivering sustainable results.

There’s an added benefit to investing in a broader range of leaders: those are the efforts that people outside the organization tend to hear about. They contribute to your brand as a place where leaders go to flourish. Because in reality, your organization is not likely to talk much about the more elite leadership programs, with good reason. It’s typically the broader-based programs that generate employer-of-choice buzz and internal morale.

Where these two leadership development strategies converge, you’ll find a machine that is generating a steady stream of talent throughout the organization and identifying, preparing and polishing the elite group of high-potential leaders. That’s the machine that our most effective clients are building right now. 

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