Jack Welch said it best: “My main job was developing talent. I was a gardener providing water and other nourishment to our top 750 people. Of course, I had to pull out some weeds, too.”


Developing high potentials should be a top priority in any successful executive’s strategic plan. Writing in the journal, Leadership Excellence (May 2011), Louis Carter and Brian Fishel discuss talent development in business, based on the findings of their Talent Management Survey. Their research indicates that 82% of the companies surveyed had either a formal or an informal talent management program. How do you rate? Are you part of the 82%? Are your flowers flourishing?


A good talent development program will accomplish three things: it will attract, grow, and retain top talent. Here are four action items that should be included in your plan.


Put people first. Of course your talent development program needs to align with your corporate strategic objectives. But the best theoretical plan in the world will accomplish little unless your people have a stake in it. Mentally review your staff and make note of the high potentials, the superstars you want to develop. Start by asking people what they want. Talk to them about what they are good at. Ask how they see themselves in the company five years from now. Let them have a say in designing their own futures.


  • Stretch their strengths.Not every high potential person is suited to every job. Tailor your development program to their specifics. If you spot people with creative talents, or the ability to speak well in public, give them a project that will stretch them. But start slowly. If you push them off the deep end with hard tasks right off the bat, you’re setting them up to fail, and they will be reluctant to take a chance on the next challenge you throw at them.


Place people in situations that encourage gradual, balanced growth. You don’t want your top performers to be spread too thin with multiple and competing challenges. But at the same time, you can’t allow them to hide out in their comfort zones. Walk a fine line between maintaining the status quo and placing them in stretch situations that challenge their capabilities. Then support them with coaches and mentors, so they have great role models, feel safe, and have a place to go for assistance when the going gets tough.


  • Accept the challenge.Never be afraid to hire and nurture people who challenge you or who reject corporate norms. Some managers feel threatened by challengers, especially young ones. But it’s a worse mistake to surround yourself only with people who agree with you no matter what. This may feel safe to you, but it leads to mediocrity and stagnation. As a real leader, you must demonstrate the maturity and confidence to encourage respectful disagreement and differences of opinion. When you do this, you will avoid creating a culture of fear where your future leaders care more about their own reputations and positions than they do about the good of the business. When you encourage open dialogue, you set an example for your rising stars, promote sharing and collaboration, and produce superior results.


  • Talk about it. As we said in the beginning, talent management in business should attract, grow, and retain your top talent. You can accomplish all those things by giving your program a high profile, both inside and outside the company. Internally, you need to facilitate communication connections between people. Let them inspire each other and feed off each other’s success. Openly share company goals and objectives. Develop trust levels that stay intact and provide stability during troubled times.


Externally, you need to develop a reputation for hiring and growing top performers. Promoting from within first enhances your ability to bring in new talent and fresh perspectives from outside the company when business needs require it. If your business is in a down cycle, you may benefit from recruiting new talent. When people know they have a chance to excel, to get on the fast track to upper management, attracting new competencies can benefit people on both sides of the equation.


In order to thrive in today’s business climate you need creative and capable leaders. Start growing them now and you’ll be prepared to meet both current and future challenges.