Leadership Development

Investing in High Potentials Using Feedforward Coaching

Recruiting, developing and executing a leadership development plan is an investment that can yield great returns. Cultivating high-potential candidates as leaders using feedforward coaching will help companies thrive.

- By Dave DeSouza

The decline in skilled human capital is a major concern for organizations across North America. With impending retirements and a lack of organizational confidence in the ability to fill leadership roles, many companies are in crisis.

Because of this, leading companies across the nation are looking to external sources to help mine internal high-potential resources. The external sources (a company specializing in leadership development) work hand-in-hand with existing leadership to identify high-potential leaders who are coachable and to help develop these individuals into appropriate leaders. The plan will often incorporate strategies for recruitment, leadership skills development and assessments. In the end, the leadership development plan will be a unique blend of internal and external resources that sets a clear path for future development maximizing the high-potential employees.

One of the first tasks that the leadership development team will undertake is recruiting good leadership coaching candidates. These candidates typically have similar traits, characteristics and beliefs that will render them high-potential leaders. Objectively, good leaders may have great communication skills, the ability to be decisive and the capability to keep calm under pressure. Coworkers may recognize the candidate’s ability to remain grounded during times of challenge and see that candidate as a dependable and integral part of the team.

On a more subjective level, high-potentials also inherently tend to hold several beliefs. The best candidates for leadership training embrace ambiguity, inspire others, are self-motivated, act with integrity and have healthy self-esteem.

In general, great leaders are not afraid of changing times or unforeseen events, and they are not resistant to new opportunities. They continuously maintain goals and expectations, and carry themselves with dignity, self-respect and a profound respect for others. Their personality, their dedication and/or their interpersonal skills tend to inspire confidence.

In certain respects, some of these traits may be easily identifiable, but others may be more difficult. A standard interview soliciting canned answers will not successfully identify leadership candidates. For this reason, an informal conversation or interview with the potential candidate can reveal leadership qualities.

Key Principles of Coaching Employees and Leadership Development

Once the coaching candidates are identified, they will begin the structured development program. Although there are numerous standardized programs for building leaders, an external resource can help an organization create, develop and implement a specialized program that is tailored to fit specific needs. Regardless of the specificity of the plan, there are several key principles that leadership development teams need to keep in mind, and these principles are the goals that guide the leadership development process.

First, coaching strategies should always be pursued in the context of the employment system and infrastructure. Candidates and coaches need to consider the company’s overall goals, needs and dynamics. While the coach and candidate are working on developing appropriate leadership skills, the candidate needs to be able to visualize how these learned skills can apply to the company or organization.

Another key principle is maintaining a focus on results. An ideal coaching plan will have metrics, objectives and goals that will serve as benchmarks for results. After goals are met, the coach can provide plenty of feedback that helps drive the results for future benchmarks.

A third principle is the recognition by all parties that the development process is a partnership between the coach and candidate. For maximum effectiveness, each party needs to recognize and respect the skills and experience that the other party brings to the table. In turn, the reciprocal relationship affects the learning experience and becomes a mutually beneficial exercise.

Finally, leadership development operates most efficiently under the assumption that all parties are competent and respectful and use sound judgment.

In 2012, BTS, a company dedicated to business strategy implementation, released a case study on the successes of a leadership development program at a global pharmaceutical company. For this client, BTS executed a modified core program that will reach more than 9,000 of the company’s high-potential employees around the world. Integrating large-scale learning sessions, small group tasks and specific skill electives, the program catered to a wide variety of leadership recruits and provided each self-motivated individual with the opportunity to further his or her own skills independently. Although the program is currently ongoing, current leaders and recruits within the organization report that the program is a success.

Using Feedforward to Provide Feedback

Traditionally, giving and receiving feedback occurs at the backend of a project, time period or performance assessment. Yet, giving and receiving this information is an essential part of successfully learning and growing. Although some organizations started to implement more frequent feedback throughout the year (instead of merely a year-end review), feedback remains a traditional critique of activities that have already occurred and may also feel more like judgment.

With feedforward, leaders have the opportunity to offer this critical information at a time when it is the most useful: before any activity occurs. The idea behind feedforward is to provide advice and ideas to people in a timely manner and in a respectable fashion. This strategy is most effective with high-potential candidates because the technique provides employees with ideas to help them achieve their goals. Whereas feedback answers the question “What did I do wrong?” feedfoward answers the question “What can I do right in the future?”

The impact of this simple tweak on an old concept has been enormous, with numerous leadership development and human resources experts complimenting its common-sense approach to communication. Most notably, reputable publications, such as Forbes, are encouraging organizations to eliminate feedback in favor of feedforward in order to create “Superhuman Capital.”

Successful organizations know that the key to longevity and growth is the efficient and successful utility of human capital. Companies like Proctor & Gamble and IBM consistently praise their leadership recruitment and development programs as the cornerstone of their success. These companies recognize the underlying need for creating and cultivating a culture of leaders who are high-potential employees and who will ultimately drive business performance.