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Nurturing Fast Track Leaders – A Concept Paper

Sandeep K.Krishnan Prof Biju Varkkey

Fellow Programme in Management Assistant Professor
Personnel and Industrial Relations Area Personnel and Industrial Relations Area
Indian Institute of Management Indian Institute of Management
Ahmedabad Ahmedabad
Vastrapur Vastrapur
Gujarat –380015,India Gujarat – 380015,India
Ph: +91-79-26327816 Ph: +91-79-26324874
Email: Email:

Leadership Development in the Globalised Economy:

HRD Initiatives and Interventions in Organizations

Academy of HRD

Nurturing Fast Track Leaders – A Concept Paper1

Sandeep K. Krishnan & Biju Varkkey♣

IIM, Ahmedabad


Leadership development is considered critical for the success of

organizations in a competitive scenario. Realizing this, organizations have
started investing in developing leaders from inside, by identifying people
who show the promise and prove their mettle. In the era of constant
changes brought by globalization and increased opportunities, it becomes
imperative to recognize potential leadership talent within organizations
and design HR systems which will provide the identified with required
learning and accelerated career growth. Such initiatives serve to motivate
the performers as well as create a leadership pipeline. This paper
explores various initiatives taken by organizations through Indian and
International case examples of fast track leadership programs. Published
sources of information and corporate campus presentations are used as
data sources. The methods and tools which are adopted by organizations
are identified and the paper suggests a framework for fast track
leadership development. Research based understanding of the various
tools used for leadership development is also discussed. The paper also
examines various issues regarding fast track leadership programs.

The debate whether leaders are born or whether they are created by contextual factors has
contributed to significant amount of theory building. However, what is more important in
the organizational context is to find employees who are potential leaders and nurture
them early enough. With the concept of life long employment vanishing and employees
constantly trying to find greener pastures for better career options , organizations cannot
remain aloof from attracting the fast trackers and managing them through well planned
organizational interventions. On the other hand organizations have to consider employee
career planning and management as part of their HR strategy. The focus here is to retain

Presented at the conference on‘ Leadership Development in the Globalized Economy: HRD Initiatives
and Interventions in Organizations’, organized by Academy of HRD, November 26-28, 2004 and published
as Krishnan, Sandeep K., & Varkkey, Biju. 2004. Nurturing Fast Track Leaders, In Developing Leadership
for the global era: HRD perspectives and initiatives: 181-191, Macmillan India Ltd: New Delhi.

The authors can be reached at: &

and nurture valuable employees while regularly moving out the misfits. For example in
the case of 3M a fast tracker/high potential is “an employee who consistently contributes
at a significantly high level. Confidence exists that the individual will move to the next
job band within three years” and in case of Westcoast Energy she/he is the one who
“demonstrates a pattern of success in new and tough situations, leaves tracks in the sand,
takes personal risks and makes professional sacrifices”(Cope and Fischer, 1998). In this
context, the paper uses the word ‘fast - track’ leaders to those individuals in organizations
who are potential future leaders of the organization. They are achieving more than what
is expected from their present age and experience. Fast track program is identified with
the set of interventions and practices which enable organizations to identify fast trackers
and help them achieve leadership positions in organizations in a relatively shorter time
period. With globalisation setting in and the environment of operation becoming more
competitive, many Indian organizations have set up formal programs for leadership
development. This may range from a wide array of activities within companies like the
use of 360 degree performance review for assessing leadership potential, assessment
centres, specially designed accelerated development programs, training and coaching,
special assignment and career designs. Corporate universities (leadership institutes like
that of Crontonville of GE) are also becoming a much observed phenomenon in the
Indian context which toes the line of organizations like GE. The Infosys Leadership
Institute is an example in this context. Age and experience as critical factors rather than
performance to qualify for leadership positions is also disappearing at least from the
private sector organizations. In this context HR has a major role to play in streamlining
the HR processes towards selecting leadership potential and managing them.
Practices for fostering young leaders: Indian Case Examples
A number of organizations have implemented fast track leadership interventions. Some of
the examples help to identify the critical factors which are similar through out.
A classic example of leadership development program in the Indian context is the Tata
Administrative Services (TAS). The programme, which was conceived and implemented
more than 40 years back, aims at growing leaders who can lead the various group
concerns in the future. It selects and trains high achieving young postgraduates from

leading business schools of the country. The candidates are given extensive cross
functional exposure across various group enterprises. TAS recruits are given the best
possible support from the organization, and have steeper career growth opportunities. The
first year of TAS is dedicated towards group orientation and learning, termed as
“GOAL”. Here the recruits get a two weeks intensive orientation about the group. They
get opportunities to interact with the senior management of the group. Training provides
exposure of various initiatives and future plans of TATA. GOAL also provides learning
through tours of various facilities of the group. Cross-functional training and challenging
projects are given. Exceptional candidates are recognized for merit. After completing the
GOAL, the recruit is given a posting which matches his choice and organizational
requirements. The TAS gives the recruits to have high degree of exposure across various
functions, group companies and responsibilities. Management expects the TAS recruit to
be in a senior management position within 10 to 12 years, where he will be having a
strategic role and considerable external contacts.
Infosys Technologies Ltd
Infosys Technologies Ltd. (Infosys) is a global player in the IT services industry.
With advancement of IT sector in the country, major firms in the country, like Infosys
and Wipro have given clear impetus for leadership talent development. Infosys has set up
the Infosys Leadership Institute (ILI) for identifying high performers in the organization
and giving them opportunity in improving the performance of the organization as
potential leaders of the organization. Candidates for the leadership program are chosen
based on past performance and assessment of leadership potential. Duration of the course
is for 3 years. ILI is conceptualised based on best practices done by organizations world
wide like GE. ILI interventions are based on a “Nine Pillar” leadership development
model. Nine interventions comprise 360 degree feedback, developmental assignments,
Infosys culture workshops, developmental relationships, leadership skill training,
feedback intensive programs, system process learning, community empathy and action
learning. 360 degree feedbacks which are aligned towards leadership competencies help
to evaluate employee’s critical leadership competencies. This helps in assessing existing
competences and making the personal developmental plan. Developmental assignments
help in gaining cross functional experience and developing practical leadership skills.

Culture workshops make sure that the basis of the culture and values of the organization
is well ingrained in the newly developing leaders. Developmental relationships are
basically mentoring programs, which help in associating a mentor relationship with a
leader of the organization. This helps in gaining considerable knowledge and experience
sharing. Leadership skills training focuses on imparting organizationally relevant
leadership skills by veteran leaders of the organization. This also ensures top
management commitment for developing future leaders. Feedback intensive programs are
behavioural interventions based on informal and formal feedbacks from the experiences
that the candidate has from the individuals with whom he/she interfaces. System process
learning aims at giving a holistic picture about the organization as one system and
sensitises about improving the system as a whole. Action learning provides opportunities
for hands on experience in improving relevant and live organizational problems. In tune
with the basic organizational value of giving its due to the society, the leadership
program needs candidates to enrol for community development programs.
Wipro, another major leader in the IT services has brought out leadership development
through a well planned process. The process starts with 360 degree feedback about the
qualities of the candidate. He is assessed based on feedback and a Personal Development
Programme is formulated. Learning opportunities are provided to the candidates for
developing their leadership talent. Wipro has developed “Life Cycle Stage Development
Program”. Here the employees who are identified to have high leadership talent are given
training according to their level in the organization. The major programs are the ‘entry
level program’, ‘new leader’s program’, ‘Wipro leader’s program’, ‘Business leaders
program’ and ‘Strategic leaders program’. Entry level program aims at building
leadership capabilities in entry level high performers. The ‘New Leader’s’ program is for
building people leaders of future. Wipro leaders program targets high performers in the
middle level of the organization. They also have the added responsibility of building
leaders from the bottom. ‘Business Leader’s Program’ aims at building competencies of
the employees who have potential of building/ managing business units. Here the impetus
is on providing competencies for revenue generation and business management. The
‘Strategic Leader’s Program’ aims at building top management leaders for future. Here

Wipro ties up with some of the best known business schools to impart of some of the
critical skills. The focus is on strategic thinking, global focus, vision and building star
performers. Wipro’s leadership development is based on their vision of having leadership
in terms of business, customer, people and brand. Wipro has identified competency based
leadership qualities. The critical competencies are based on rigorous interviews, focussed
groups and critical incidents. The competencies required for top management, senior
management and middle management are identified and assessed. For example, major
leader qualities identified for top management at Wipro are customer orientation,
strategic thinking, problem solving, self confidence, global thinking and acting,
commitment to excellence, aggressive commitments and building star performers and
teams. 360 degree feedback is used to assess the leaders on the basis of Wipro Leadership
Qualities. Based on the feedback, Wipro identifies the slack areas for development in
each of the individuals. Training programs are organized and the leader is asked to
formulate his own plan for development. Leadership development at Wipro has high
degree of support from the top management. Even the CEO, Mr Azim Premji participates
in the leadership development activities (Bakshi, 2001). A study by Hewitt Associates
ranks Wipro Limited as number one in Asia Pacific in terms of leadership development
(Hewitt Associates, Press Release, Dec 3, 2003).

GE India
GE in India has a mix of general management fast track leadership development and
functional leaders development program. These have a mix of classroom and experiential
learning. The GE financial management program, Human Resource Leadership Program
and Information Management Leadership program are the three stated career
development interventions. The first two programs aim at building functional leaders
while the third one is a general management program which aims at building fast track
leaders. Potential leaders are selected based on qualifications and competencies and are
given extensive cross functional training.
Fast Track Leadership Development: International examples
Day and Halpin (2001) explore how some of the best companies known for their
leadership development initiatives have succeeded in doing that. As far as practices that

are adopted, the common ones are Formal Development Programs, 360 degree feedback,
executive coaching, job assignments, mentoring, networking, reflection, outdoor learning
and action learning. Studying the best practices organizations namely General Electric,
Motorola, Pepsico, Federal Express and Johnson & Johnson, it is seen that successful
organizations show high degree of top management commitment especially the CEO, for
leadership development. This is highly linked to business needs, organizational culture
and values, leaders play an important role in developing leaders and focussing on leaders
who are entrepreneurial in nature.
In case of Pepsico, the leadership development is highly supported by the CEO.
The best managers who are high performers and have the capacity to be heading
businesses in the future are chosen for specialized leadership development program. At
Pepsico, the focus is on finding those people capable of building the business rather than
running the business which is a manager’s job.
FedEx has developed a leadership development institute which identifies leadership
talent by a Leadership Evaluation and Awareness Process (LEAP). LEAP is based on
nine dimensions of competencies for leadership which includes three behavioural
competencies - charisma, individualized consideration and intellectual stimulation. Six
other leadership competencies are courage, dependability, flexibility, dependability,
judgment and respect for others. Selection process is rigorous and the program demands
high performance and extra efforts from the identified leader, without extra
compensation. As a consequence, high attrition is also observed. The curriculum
combines experiential learning, classroom learning, observations and stimulations. The
leaders of the organization play an active role in the process, and act as instructors. The
curriculum covers management topics like economics, global business scenario,
corporate expectations, and strategy, and involves discussions with top management on
various issues. Participants are also given opportunities to vision about their own
business units.
Alldredge, Johnson, Stoltzfus and Vicere (2003) explore how 3M instituted leadership
development. At 3M, an accelerated leadership development programme was set up
through the special interest of the CEO for leadership development. Changing from the
egalitarian treatment that 3M used to give to employees in terms of development, the new

program chooses high performers with leadership potential and they are given extensive
training. The accelerated leadership development programme (ALDP) of 3M is rooted in
the concept that leadership development should fit with strategic imperatives of the
organization, like vision, growth, acceleration and performance. Various HR systems,
like performance appraisal, compensation, and succession planning, are aligned to the
leadership development objectives. It is linked to the workplace by getting together
organizational leaders for coaching, mentoring and projects which are of major
importance to the organization and action learning. Candidates for ALDP are chosen by a
top management team through inputs from business leaders and succession management
process. The CEO and the HR head play a major role in selecting the best candidates. The
chosen candidates are assessed through a 360 degree tool and personalized learning
objectives are drawn. The ALDP extends for 17 days, which includes 5 days of extensive
classroom teaching, followed by 10 days of tackling organizationally relevant and live
business issues and 2 days of debriefing and presentations to top management. At the end
of ADLP, a personalized development plan is formulated for the participants based on
their feedback and performance.
Similarly, Rolls Royce provides its high calibre employees with a fast track development
program. The accelerated leadership development programme of Rolls Royce aims at
creating a pool of employees who can handle senior management positions in the future.
In the first stage, employees who are sponsored by their seniors, participate in a
comprehensive assessment process and are given feedback regarding their development
plans. While all employees who take part in the process are given feedback, only the
chosen best undergo the programme. These employees are given a picture of the
opportunities that exist for them for career advancement at a global level. They undergo
training in the existing business scenario of the company and future strategy.
Developmental inputs in terms of skills training and stretched assignments across
functions and businesses are also provided. Participants are also provided opportunities to
interact with senior management of the company. Review of the participant’s
performance is done by the CEO and their own business development meetings (DDI
World, 2004).

Salient Features of the Fast Track development programs:
One factor that distinguishes organizations with successful leadership development
programs is the commitment of the top management. The study by Hewitt Associates
finds that CEOs were committed to leadership development in all the top ten companies,
whereas less than 80% of other companies showed similar commitment. Study showed
that more than 80% of the companies in ten had the commitment of the board of directors
for leadership development and they provided necessary resources. However, only near
to 40% of other companies had similar commitment from the board of directors. The ten
companies had high degree of commitment for developing their leaders from within.
Large percentage of the top companies groomed their CEOs from within, used internal
assessment through performance appraisals to identify potential leaders, groomed their
high performers through rotational assignments and provided learning opportunities
through developmental assignments and succession planning was linked with the
leadership development strategy (Hewitt Associates, 2003).
From the above mentioned cases, a number of key practices and factors that help
in fostering fast track leadership development can be deduced. A critical factor would be
the support of top management and the board for supporting/ initiating leadership
identification/development programmes and providing necessary resources. Linkage with
the strategic necessity of the company is seen as a vital factor in most of the cases. This
factor determines how much leadership development is in tune with the organizational
needs. The above mentioned organizations have established processes for selecting the
best talent as future leaders. A combination of past performance, credentials in terms of
qualification and assessment of competencies through various methods like 360 degree
feedback or assessment centres are used. Leadership development is linked directly
towards the values and culture of the organization. Leadership development programmes
incorporates culture and value preaching as an important part. Use of internal resources in
terms of systems like ‘leaders teaching leaders’ are common in most of the programmes.
Senior leaders of the organization participate as mentors/coaches for the new candidates.
The chosen candidates for leadership development are given higher developmental
opportunities and career enhancement advice. Organizations have their own established
leadership competencies which are highly linked to the culture and business environment.

Organizations also tend to personalize the development plans of each of the candidates
identifying their specific strengths and weaknesses. The leadership development
programmes also have high element of exposure to experiential learning and teaches the
candidates the much needed organizationally relevant business skills. Identified high
performers are tracked and reviewed even after the specific programmes to understand
their advancement in terms of career. Fulmer, Gibbs and Goldsmith (2000) identify the
following aspects as critical for establishing a strong linkage between strategy and
leadership development of organizations. They are ‘building awareness of external
challenges, emerging strategies, organizational needs and what leading firms do to meet
the needs, employing anticipatory learning tools to recognize potential external events,
envision the future and focus on action the organization can take to create its own future,
taking action by tying leadership-development programs to solving important,
challenging business issues, aligning leadership development with performance
assessment, feedback, coaching and succession planning and assessing impact of the
leadership-development process on individual behavioral changes and organizational
Understanding the practices and processes:
Sturges (2004) discusses the importance of change in the career management perspective
on leadership and management development. Organizational career management is
giving way to individualized career management. It has become difficult for
organizations to retain high potential employees by giving training and development
orientated to the traditional hierarchical career growth. Growth in opportunities due to
globalisation, increasing restructuring at work places, competition and changes in
demographics of work force has increased the tendency of individualized career
management. The concept of boundary less career also increases the pressure on
organizations to manage its talent. Although the traditional organizational career
management is losing its relevance, the need for organizational interventions to support
individualized career management is increasing. It is important that organizations identify
high potential leadership talent and provide them opportunities for development as future
leaders. The traditional methods, like performance appraisal or assessment centres, can
help in formulating personalized development plans for individuals.

A major development in many organizations is the establishment of corporate
universities (leadership institutes). Paton, Taylor and Storey (2004) explore the major
advantages of having corporate universities. Counting from the famous one at the
Crontonville of GE, corporate universities (CUs) have spread to many organizations
across the globe. CUs have a great deal of advantages in terms of organizational
leadership development. They can have institutionalised processes which help in
identifying the organizational leadership talent, which conforms to the needs and culture
of the organization. CUs can also deliver training and interventions, which align
leadership talent closely with the organizational strategic initiatives. CUs are also
considered as the solution which many organizations are utilizing to have a focussed
approached towards identifying leaders and giving them specialized and customized
Increasingly organizations are speaking about developing leadership competencies.
Although the competencies are context related and should be organizationally relevant,
studies also show that there are striking similarities between the competencies identified
(Williams and Cothrel, 1997). The authors mention ability to build confidence, build
enthusiasm, form networks, influence others, cooperate, using information and deliver
results, business literacy, proactivity, creativity, problem solving, cross cultural
effectiveness, relationship building, empathy, teamwork, flexibility and vision as the
widely accepted leadership competencies. Conner (2000) describes how a major global
consumer products company went about developing its global leaders. The critical
competencies identified for the global leaders for the company were, business suaveness,
knowing to use personal influence, having global perspective, strong character, ability to
motivate people and entrepreneurial nature. The company identified the best performers
who are to be put in fast track from various business units and were made globally
mobile. Succession planning, feedback process, compensation and communication were
streamlined to support the identified future global leaders.
The 360 degree feedback is a major tool used across organizations in the process of
leadership talent identification and assessment. As a major trait of leaders is to motivate
his followers (subordinates in the workplace), the feedback from them plays a major role.
Apart from the supervisor, in the context of leadership development, 360 degree feedback

can play a major role through suggestions from multiple sources (Atwater and Waldman,
1998). 360 degree feedback helps in better self reflection. Also, studies show that there is
a marked standard deviation between ratings from different sources. For example, there
are instances where leaders themselves underestimate their leadership potential (Nilsen
and Campbell, 1993). Exploring the various advantages and limitation of 360 degree
feedback, Conger and Toegel (2003) also suggest that multi rater feedback may help the
leader to have a much better objective understanding of himself. However, 360 degree
feedbacks have their own limitations based on the implementation. When organizations
try to link 360 degree feedback to performance and compensation apart from
development perspective, the chances of getting biased information increases. The self
rating may be based on the self defence behaviour of the rater.
Mentoring is used an intervention to support leader candidates in organizations. Sosik
and Lee (2002) refer to a number of authors and list out the advantages provided by
mentoring process. The major ones are personal networks, shared identity, power , social
support and helping and transformational leadership. Mentoring process can help in
providing career related advice, promoting the protégé as successful employee, protecting
and helping out during difficult situations.

Fast track leadership development: A Schematic Representation

Top management
commitment and initiative,
strategic objectives

Aligning organizational processes for

fast track development.
Setting up frameworks/ institutions

Selecting high potentials – Use of

performance parameters,
competency assessments etc
Support of
Personal organizational
Development Specialized leadership leaders as mentors
plan development programs and instructors

Enhanced opportunities and

fast track career path

The leadership development process starts with the selection process. Selecting high
potential talent is the crux at this stage. Many organizations have specialized

programmes, like TAS for getting high potential talent The second factor will be the
assessment of the leadership talent in the organization. Either the high potentials are
directly selected or they are chosen from the high performers/ promising candidates in the
organization. They are assessed for the required leadership qualities and are given
necessary training and development support. The high potentials are given support from
the management in terms of mentoring and higher responsibilities for better career
opportunities. Further, they are put in a fast track career path and their performance is
periodically reviewed.
Critical elements of fast track development programs:
Various elements and factors that are part of a fast track development initiative are
identified from the cases and the discussion of the literature. The starting point would be
orienting the HR processes like recruitment and selection, to identify and attract the best
talent which suit the organizational needs. The organizations should have developed clear
career plans for these recruits. The high performing leadership talent is also spotted from
the internal talent of organizations. Most often, they undergo specialized training
program which are customized to develop required organizational leadership skills.
Major tools like competency assessment, 360 degree reviews etc., are used in the process.
Organizations are also building facilities like corporate universities to facilitate the entire
programs. Essentially, the performance of the fast trackers is reviewed continuously and
low performers are taken out of the process. Fast trackers are provided support of the top
management in terms of coaching/ mentoring. Fast trackers grow are given avenues for
accelerated career growth in terms of responsibilities and exposure.
Issues in fostering fast track leaders:
Although individualization process for career development and leadership assessment
helps to retain and foster fast track/ high potential employees, this may create a major
dent in the egalitarian treatment which the organization should show to its employees.
Lack of transparency in the process of selecting fast trackers may cause serious morale
issues in the organization. Employees who are deprived of the fast track career progress
may even leave the organization. Cope and Fischer (1998) also points at the issue of
communication, which is involved with fostering fast trackers. The consistency of
performance is a concern for the leadership development. After getting into the fast-track

role, if the candidate falls short of expected performance, it is important that the
organization has a set of review process and communicates the performance openly with
the candidate. Also, it is important that organization communicates fairly the process
followed and the selected candidates for fast track to whole organization. There are
approaches where the high achievers are categorized in to group of special
characteristics. For example, the alpha males, who are supposedly the high achievers are
characterized by their high intelligence, rapid decision making, unemotional attitude
toward work and people, and poor listening skills. As they make the transition to top
management, it is suggested that they are given well planned coaching for developing
necessary leadership skills and managing weaknesses (Kate and Eddie, 2004).
There are also reservations on the high degree of pressure that organizations are putting
on executives as fast trackers. Most of them are directed towards the burn out due to high
stress and fatigue, due to continuous pressure for achieving higher performance. The
pressure for managing career growth and employment stability is also seen as a major
factor for these (Harry, 1996). However, these factors should not be a deterrent for the
fast trackers as the fast tracker is considered to be a one who is self motivated and who
has the urge for growing at a faster rate. Instead, burnout can also be due to lack of
avenues for growth for a high performing employee due to lack of a formal fast track
program. Still, it is imperative that organizations provide necessary support mechanisms
like counselling to its fast trackers and employees in general.
The various case examples and literature show that organizations can have planned
processes to enhance the development opportunities of high potential employees.
Tracking the high potential employees requires high degree of commitment from the top
management in terms of resources and other support, like mentoring. It is essential that
organizations map the strategic relevance of leadership development and required
competencies in the leaders. With the advent of globalisation and increased competition
beyond boundaries, the need for building future leaders is high and global leaders are the
need of the hour. At the same time, traditional modes of organizational career
management are losing their relevance. It is imperative that organizations understand the
importance of managing the individualized career aspiration of high potential employees

and provide them with enhanced opportunities both in terms of development support and
career choices which mould them as future leaders.

1. For the purpose of preparation of this paper, we had consulted campus presentation of

TAS, Infosys and Wipro at IIM, Ahmedabad.


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