February 2022 | 

From Potential to Promotion: Own Your Leadership Development

Potential to Promotion: Own Your Leadership Development

As the Great Resignation continues (the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a record 4.5 million left their jobs in November), CEOs now say attracting and retaining talent is at the top of their list of strategic priorities. According to a new survey by Fortune/Deloitte, a majority of those CEOs say in response they are offering more time off, more pay, or more training and development. But while there’s mounting evidence that the first two are having little effect, offering learning opportunities is making a difference: in a 2021 study by Gallup, 61 percent of the 15,000 workers surveyed said upskilling opportunities were an important reason for staying at their company.

If you’re offered the chance to develop your leadership, how can you take advantage? A decades-long downward trend in talent development means many internal programs targeted at high potentials have been eliminated. Engineering a series of stretch and cross-functional assignments on your own, which requires buy-in from multiple senior leaders, can be difficult and time-consuming. But as those same senior leaders recognize the need for development, they’re more likely than ever to green-light external development programs.

Enter Wharton’s High-Potential Leaders, which has just been redesigned for even greater relevance to the current challenges of leadership development. “Growing as a leader requires two levels of change,” says Wharton Deputy Dean and management professor Nancy Rothbard. “You need to be introspective, looking honestly at your skills and weaknesses, then work on leveraging the former and strengthening the latter. Second, you need to develop a ‘systems thinking’ approach that is a hallmark of senior leaders. That means seeing the organization as a whole, looking at the connections and interactions between each function and how they operate together to make the company work.”


Examining one’s leadership is something most high potentials — and their senior leaders — rarely have the time or opportunity to do. The first day and a half of High-Potential Leaders includes classroom discussions and lessons grounded in research about leader identity and leadership vision. Then, using Wharton-designed assessments and expert guidance, participants develop their own leadership identity and leadership vision statements.

“If you’re leading others without being clear with yourself about who you are as a leader and the vision you can use to inspire others,” says Jeff Klein, executive director of Wharton’s McNulty Leadership Program, “you create a vacuum that your team members will fill with their own visions — and their own drama. Especially in times of hardship, getting work done hinges on trust, and the understanding that you are part of something bigger than yourself. A self-aware, inspiring leader helps each team member know his or her role, be conscious of other members of the team, and align confidently as a group.”

Stretch Experiences

In-house development programs typically include assignments with greater responsibilities in less-familiar areas of the business. In external programs, those assignments don’t have the same direct application — but because they’re undertaken in a workshop setting, the insights they reveal are quicker and often more powerful. In High-Potential Leaders, those experiences include a leadership challenge and a simulation. Both are observed by faculty, and the feedback (which is provided in real time throughout the simulation and at the conclusion of the leadership challenge) helps participants make meaningful adjustments and better understand what they’re already doing well.

“These experiences show you how linked your own values and goals are to the way you perform as a leader and as part of a team,” says Klein. “It also makes the principles we discuss in the classroom tangible. How are team roles defined? How do you communicate your vision and inspire others to follow your lead? When you are immersed in a challenge, the lessons about what high performance looks like and how it is achieved — ones that often go unseen — are clear.”

Advanced Skills

High-Potential Leaders also addresses critical leadership skills that are often considered either innate or unalterable without intense coaching. Those skills include communication, emotional intelligence, and networking. Rothbard, who directs the program and leads a number of sessions, says developing as a leader must include improving the ways in which you interact with others. “Emotional intelligence, for example, is a different way of thinking about what we need to pay attention to and respond to,” she explains. “Emotions are not a distraction. They are a valuable source of information — and reading and responding to them is part of your job as a leader. Research shows that better emotional-intelligence skills translate into improved engagement and higher marks from your team. In the program, you will learn ways to manage and regulate your own emotions and those of your team.”

Overall, says Rothbard, High-Potential Leaders helps participants return to their work with enhanced competencies and a clear path for future advancement. “Developing your potential isn’t complete after one week. It’s a process that takes place incrementally, over the course of your career. Our program jump starts it.”