Nurturing Fast Track Leaders – A Concept Paper

Sandeep K.Krishnan Fellow Programme in Management Personnel and Industrial Relations Area Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad Vastrapur Gujarat –380015,India Ph: +91-79-26327816 Email:

Prof Biju Varkkey Assistant Professor Personnel and Industrial Relations Area Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad Vastrapur Gujarat – 380015,India Ph: +91-79-26324874 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 Abstract 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.

Introduction 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. TAS 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 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 success’. 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 training. 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 Personal Development plan Support of organizational leaders as mentors and instructors

Specialized leadership development programs 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. Conclusion: 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


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