A few times a year, clients ask me to design or participate in their leadership development programs. These programs require significant investment, so senior leaders view them as a way to groom and strengthen high-potential employees — the ones they hope will become change-makers and their eventual successors.

But even development programs meant for high-potential employees can sag in the middle: Maybe only a few of the planned courses are delivered, employees complain that their time isn’t being well spent, or the company doesn’t see any boost in performance.

Routinely, two things get in the way of effective leadership programs: the employees who are chosen to participate, and the content and structure of the program itself.

The Typical Choices Aren’t Always the Right Ones

In some cases, everyone at a given organizational level or in a particular cadre is tapped for development. The company may be trying to amortize program costs over a large group, hedging against dropout and failure rates, or rewarding good performance. That’s fine for teaching basic concepts, but it doesn’t support the specificity and nuance necessary to shape future leaders.

Alternatively, department heads may designate candidates, without clear criteria. Too often they choose their top performer or a favorite subordinate who doesn’t make waves; but many top performers are really subject matter experts, not the strategists and people developers that senior leaders need to be. And while “favorites” may elevate their department’s status or their own, they’re more likely to preserve the status quo rather than looking for the best ways to advance the organization.

Either way, you end up with bycatch: employees who take the program but aren’t necessarily the most desirable targets. Their functional talents may be wasted and their expectations raised too high; simultaneously, they slow the momentum and dilute the focus of the participants with true leadership potential. Dissatisfaction ensues for all.

Get to Know Your Candidates

So put in the effort to select and enroll people who are strategic and creative thinkers and can also galvanize others to take appropriate action. Get to know them well enough to understand:

  • What motivates them?
  • Have they shown good judgment without merely mirroring their direct supervisor?
  • Do they have functional competence and also recognize how their function serves the larger organization’s goals?
  • Do peers trust them, share information with them, and respond positively to their input?
  • What do they see as their own special gifts, and are their perceptions accurate?

Development is Personal

Employees with significant leadership potential are also committed to their own personal growth. If they suspect they’re getting off-the-shelf content that’s not relevant to their actual work environment, they lose interest and your trainers, developers, and program sponsors lose credibility. Plus, if employees don’t have opportunities to implement what they’re learning, much of its value is wasted.

So instead of marching all participants through the same generic leadership content, tailor content for each person’s experience and goals. Wherever you find common denominators, organize group training around them, but don’t neglect the coaching and mentoring to ensure that each high-potential employee develops as fully as possible.

Prepare High-Potentials for the Real World

Always treat these folks as the special individuals they are, worthy of investment, because they’re the ones who can and will take you into the future. Be sure to explain why what they’re learning is important to the organization and how they’ll use it later on the job.

Structure group projects in which high-potential employees share data and other resources with their peers, cope with divergent perspectives, and experience joint outcomes. These assignments should be complex, multifaceted, and progressive enough so they feel the exercise and deliberate practice.

Recognize them for their useful experiments, even if the outcomes are not perfect or as expected. Help them see their progress so they can check on their own growing effectiveness. Thank them for their deliberate practice and best efforts so long as they are developing sound perspectives and approaches.

And encourage them to nurture and praise the value of others, to ensure that when they go back to their departments, they don’t lord it over their colleagues.