How long should the development component of a talent pool programme take?

By Dr Lydia Cillié-Schmidt

One of our clients recently had a graduation ceremony for the participants in their leadership talent pool programme. The success of the programme was measured by the improvement of the developmental readiness of the participants. The duration of the talent pool programme was three years and by the end of the programme, about 90% of the participants were assessed to be ready for the target level. Some clients view three years as too long and would like to reduce it to three years. What is the ideal timeframe to ensure that participants are ready for the target level that they are being developed for?

The client’s approach to succession development was heavily influenced by the methodology for “Acceleration Pools” described in the book “Grow your own Leaders” by Byham, Smith and Pease. In the book, Bill Byham and his co-authors advise organisations to develop leadership talent through acceleration pools comprised of high-potential candidates who are tracked by the senior management team. The acceleration pool system develops candidates for more senior levels, rather than targeting one or two hand-picked people for each senior position. Pool members are assigned to stretch jobs and task forces that offer the best learning and highest visibility and accelerate individual development. Candidates have an assigned mentor, receive more feedback, coaching and training, and participate in special developmental experiences. In the follow-up book “Leaders Ready Now” by Paese, Smith and Byham it is mentioned that organisations who followed this approach have been shown to outpace others in growing leaders and to have larger supplies of ready leaders and stronger performance amongst them.

Some people may not think that a three-year programme is an example of an accelerated development programme. If you however compare this to the following statement by Ericsson, Edward and Cokely (Harvard Business Review, July–August 2007), three years do indeed seem to be accelerated: “The journey to truly superior performance is neither for the faint of heart nor for the impatient. The development of genuine expertise requires struggle, sacrifice, and honest, often painful self-assessment. There are no shortcuts. It will take you at least a decade to achieve expertise, and you will need to invest that time wisely, by engaging in “deliberate” practice—practice that focuses on tasks beyond your current level of competence and comfort. You will need a well-informed coach not only to guide you through deliberate practice but also to help you learn how to coach yourself”.

The participants in our client’s talent pool programme will agree that they worked hard to become ready for the target level. Although they initially thought that three years may be too long, their experience on the programme showed them that the overall impact became clearer after the three years were nearly over. As one of the participants wrote: “Over the past 3 years, I believe that there has been a marked improvement in the manner in which I think and approach my career, my work and life in general. I am now able to better see the bigger picture and better understand the implications of my decisions and actions, not only on my department and self, but on the business unit and the company as a whole”. It is also not to say that development stops after the participants are viewed as ready for the target level, but the participants could now continue at a less intense pace with their development.

What is your view on the ideal duration of the development component of a talent pool programme?

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