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Back to the Future - Acceleration Pools

By Mark Busine

Mark Busine

Over the last 15 years organisations have embraced the concept of high-potential pools and programs. In fact DDI’s Global Leadership Forecast research found that 66 percent of organisations have a high-potential program in place. Alarmingly, 74 percent of those who had high-potential programs in place considered their programs not very effective.

These findings suggest we need to be doing some things differently and even challenge some of the prevailing views that exist on high-potential pools and programs.

Acceleration PoolsAbout 15 years ago a former colleague handed me a book to read. The book, titled Grow Your Own Leaders, was written by three DDI associates including founder and chairman Bill Byham. The book outlined a new approach to succession management based on the concept of acceleration pools. It was one of the key reasons I joined DDI.

Acceleration pools were essentially a response to the traditional approach to succession management based on replacement planning. While replacement planning had been adequate for a relatively stable business context and environment where employees were prepared to stay loyal to a company for many years, acceleration pools recognised the shifting business landscape and the need to prepare a group of ‘high-potential’ individuals for a business context that was constantly changing. If you could place a differential investment in those ‘high-potential’ individuals they could be deployed against critical business needs as they arose.

The use of the term ‘acceleration pool’ was very deliberate. The aim of the pool was to identify those individuals who would benefit from the growth opportunity and in essence accelerate their readiness towards critical business roles and challenges in the future. There was no guarantee but picking people with ‘the right stuff’ would certainly give you a better chance of delivering on this goal.

Over time, many people have tended to adopt the term high-potential or talent pools, rather than acceleration pools. They have unintentionally misrepresented the purpose of acceleration pools and put their programs at risk. A few observations about high-potential pools:

  1. High-potential pools can convey a sense of arrival (i.e. participation in the pool itself can represent the destination). This is clearly at odds with the purpose of an acceleration pool which represents the start of a journey.
  2. Having observed high-potential pools across numerous organisations one of the common challenges I see is where the pool starts to resemble a club rather than an accelerated development experience. Too often organisations will identify a group of high potentials and do little or nothing to support their accelerated development. The only thing individuals can take from the pool is their status as a ‘HiPo’.
  3. Once part of a high-potential pool, pool members can be reluctant to leave the pool even when they have maximised their development opportunity. Think about it; how would you like to know that you are no longer a high-potential? While we understand the rationale for moving in and out of pools, in reality this can be difficult to manage. Even when an organisation actively manages this, participants may react negatively to their change of ‘status’.

Identifying acceleration potential

Acceleration pools and programs are like airport travelators. They have the ability to move you quickly towards a destination. But have you ever noticed what happens when someone stands on a travelator, versus someone who walks on the travelator. The individual who stands on the travelator moves at the same pace as those walking alongside the travelator. The individual who walks on the travelator reaches the other end much faster. When identifying high-potentials you want someone who is prepared to walk on the travelator. While the organisation can provide the development travelator, the goal of acceleration will only be achieved if those entering the travelator are prepared to walk as well.

In my previous blog No More HiPos Please, I discussed the role of mindsets in acceleration pools and shared an example that highlighted the risks when someone entering an acceleration process does not bring a growth mindset. With this in mind, how do you spot someone with a growth mindset or acceleration potential?

While tests may provide a view on an individual’s underlying capacity to grow and deal with the complexity, identifying someone with acceleration potential or a growth mindset requires behavioural evidence. Can they and others cite examples of where they have demonstrated a growth mindset? This can apply at any level of the organisation including lower levels where people may not bring leadership experience.

So what can you look for when identifying acceleration potential?

  • Have they demonstrated receptivity to feedback and can they share examples of how they have acted on the feedback?
  • Have they actively sought out development opportunities and been prepared to push themselves out of their comfort zone?
  • Have they actively sought feedback from others, formally or informally?
  • Are they able to articulate an understanding of their strengths and development as well as personal tendencies that may enable and derail their success?
  • Do they demonstrate an understanding of areas and functions outside their own?

It’s not just leadership potential anymore

When acceleration pools were first introduced, the focus was on identifying and preparing future leaders. Overtime we have seen the work context change and the need for acceleration pools to be used in other areas. The pools you choose to focus on will depend on the areas and roles that are critical to your future success. We have worked with organisations that have pools for future leaders and pools for future specialists. The defining criterion in all cases though is their acceleration potential. Are they likely to benefit from the accelerated development opportunity?

My five top tips for maximising the impact of your next acceleration pool:

  • The purpose and goal of acceleration pools needs to be carefully considered and communicated. Individuals entering a pool need to understand their responsibility and role in the accelerated development experience.
  • Ensure that ‘acceleration’ becomes the focus of your initiatives and programs. Consider using terminology that reflects this.
  • Acceleration is a business imperative and therefore organisations need to create opportunities to accelerate the growth of individuals. Don’t leave development to individual curiosity and/or self-improvement.
  • Actively manage the pools to ensure they don’t become clubs.
  • Acceleration pools are critical business assets. Manage them like you would manage any other critical business asset. Devote the necessary time and resources.

Missed part one, No More HiPos Please, that explores high-potentials and programs? If you’re interested in exploring this area further, check out these other great DDI Blogs and resources on the topic of high-potential identification and pools.

Mark Busine is Managing Director for DDI Australia.

Posted: 08 Jul, 2016,
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