Survey: Companies Making Half-Hearted Effort to ID High Potentials

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Remember my many rants about the terrible state of succession planning in the American workplace?

Well, I haven’t had one in a couple of months, at least since the last survey indicating how bad it really is. So, it wasn’t surprising when this new survey from AMA Enterprise, a division of the American Management Association, seemed to follow a predictable pattern.

Here it is: “more than one-quarter of large organizations (27 percent) make virtually no attempt to identify their high-potential employees, according to a survey of more than 500 senior managers and executives.”

On top of that, nearly half of the employers (48 percent) who do make an effort to identify high-potentials consider that effort to be merely satisfactory. Just one in five (21 percent) called their organization’s program to spot future leaders “extensive.”

“Half of organizations … don’t seem really committed”

Is there a positive here? Well, it’s not another poll showing how badly organizations are doing at succession planning, but you can make a great case that this may actually be worse.

What if you’re in that 27 percent of companies making virtually no attempt to ID your workers with the most potential? Hard to keep your top talent if you don’t even know who those people are.

“At a time when organizations are struggling to build their leadership pipeline, retain top performers and plan for management succession, it’s ironic that so many are ineffective at the first step, which is to find the most promising employees,” said Sandi Edwards, Senior Vice President for AMA Enterprise, a specialized division of American Management Association that offers advisory services and tailored learning programs to organizations.

She added: “The most striking finding, in my view, is that half of organizations don’t seem really committed to holding onto their best talent and developing these people to contribute at higher levels of performance.”

Yes, it is ironic that so many organizations are so ineffective at identifying high potentials, but that seems to mirror the terrible job that so many do at succession planning. And, it gets worse.

The effort (or lack thereof) to identify high potentials

When asked, “How would you describe your organization’s efforts to identify high potentials?” here’s how they answered:

  • Mostly informal — 44 percent;
  • Combination of systematic and informal — 42 percent;
  • Systematic — 8 percent;
  • Don’t know — 6 percent.

“Less than 10 percent address this in truly systematic way, (according to) the respondents,” said Edwards of the AMA. “And when we learn that so many companies rely on ‘informal’ methods the alarm bell should sound. ‘Informal’ is often just explaining away a lack of rigor.”

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I don’t know about you, but I find these numbers to be pretty amazing.

In a world where managers and executives spend so much time talking about the need to find top talent, you would think there would be a laser-like focus from a majority of organizations when it comes to identifying employees who have high potential to take on greater responsibility. The fact that so many DON”T do it, as these survey numbers show, is simply amazing.

Ignoring the obvious reasons to develop talent

Sandi Edwards of the AMA, who believes that finding and developing promising employees should be at the core of every company’s talent management strategy, probably said it best.

“There are obvious reasons (for developing promising talent), but the key one may be the messages management sends to its workers … that they’re valued, that they have a future, and that the organization has a stake in their career,” she said “If employees don’t understand the key roles they play, how can management expect to have an engaged workforce, or be surprised when the best employees decide to leave?”

I completely agree with Edwards analysis, but it also makes me wonder: is this lack of focus on identifying and grooming high potentials by so many organizations simply an extension of the cavalier attitude a lot of companies exhibited toward employees during the recession and beyond?

Lots of workers are ready to leave their current jobs for greener pastures (if there are any) if they get half a chance. As this survey by AMA Enterprise shows clearly yet again, this is a trend that organizations could change, but only if they really focused on doing so.

Is there a chance that will happen any time soon?

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.


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