three women at a meeting

While CEO’s are crafting inspirational pledges, business continues as usual, hiring managers complain about pipeline issues and ignore the need for shifting their practices & policies. As an HR leader, you want to make a difference, but don’t know where to start. You can begin by applying a diversity and equity lens to your current leadership programs.

Evidence based research shows that processes used to identify participants for High Potential Leadership programs are highly subjective and frequently biased favoring white male candidates. In addition to being subjective, many programs equate high performance in current roles with leadership potential for future roles (1).  As they say in the financial markets, past performance is no guarantee for future success (in leadership). If you want to disrupt the status quo, here are four actions that you can implement.

Four steps to remove bias from your high potential programs

1.      Create common selection criteria across all teams

Implementing common criteria for identifying future leaders helps avoid bias in selection by individual managers. Start by articulating what you value in your successful leaders. It’s a great place to add inclusive leadership principles to your program. This must be highly individualized and defined by the existing corporate culture, with the addition of what you aspire to for your future.  Culture matters – a leader with a low risk tolerance would be unsuccessful in many industries, but highly successful in a regulated environment.

After naming what’s valued, have you assessed if it’s practiced by your C-Suite and their direct reports?  How far down the management chain is it expressed?  What are your employee surveys telling you?  Is there a breakdown between C-suite expressed values and teams?  If so, your high potential employees may be taking the leadership skills they develop in your program to other companies with better cultures. 

The criteria may be aspirational to start. When developing common criteria and applying it consistently across teams, you don’t just get better leaders, you get better corporate culture (3). It allows managers to have conversations with team members about how their performance conforms (or not) to the company’s stated values.

2.      Criteria must disrupt existing gender bias & reward situational self-awareness skills

The leadership paradigm is shifting from having an individual “genius leader” to a leader that facilitates the “collective genius.” Anita Williams- Wolley research demonstrates that a group’s collective intelligence is increased when there are women in the group. Selecting hi-potentials for their ability to foster an environment where women thrive can disrupt gender bias for good.

While some individuals may be cognitively smart, they can have a limited ability to read situational cues and interpersonal signals. Find individuals who excel at creating collective intelligence that combines appropriate representation of women in the group, social sensitivity of group members, and equal conversational participation among men and women (4). By including those skills in your selection criteria, you ensure that IQ isn’t valued over EQ (emotional intelligence).

3.      Examine your evaluation processes 

If you look at your C-suite, upper and middle management and see a majority of white men, you can assume there’s bias in the evaluation, retention and promotion process. A possible underlying issue is that unintentionally you may not be rewarding existing managers for the right things. 

Do managers who spend time hiring and developing diverse employees get rewarded for it? In many cases, dedicated managers spend extra hours developing talent, but don’t get recognition or rewards for that part of their job. Until recently those who successfully climbed the corporate ladder have been rewarded for sacrificing family life. This trend may leave women (and also men who value time with their family) outside of the C-suite pipeline.  To drive gender equity in your programs you will need to reward the behaviors that allow men and women to fairly compete for the C-suite or you’ll lose valuable future leaders to cultures where work/life balance is supported. 

4.      Program Design

Black employees are sometimes over-mentored but under-sponsored. Their mentors give advice that works for people like their mentors – speak at conferences, join specific organizations, and use specific behaviors that work for white males, without understanding the barriers for Black people. Developing expertise and speaking assertively lands completely differently for a Black woman than it does for a White male (5).

Instead of mentorship, look to sponsorship.  Designate successful leaders as internal sponsors to high potential diverse employees.  To fully reap the benefits of sponsorship, hold sponsors accountable by rewarding them for successful promotions of their candidates. Look at trends over time and if their candidates are not receiving promotions, view that as a failure of the sponsor. (5)

As you design your leadership programs, clearly communicate the success criteria and be transparent about the eligibility criteria to drive wider adoption. In this process, you may discover some “quiet” leaders who have been overlooked by front-line managers due to bias and those who self-select may have a huge impact on creating strong leadership pipeline for the future.

In summary, applying a diversity & equity lens to your programs starts with ensuring clear metrics that provide access and opportunity for advancement to all, while acknowledging the barriers underrepresented groups face. By creating common criteria across teams, you can remove barriers created by biased evaluations. Second, ensure that you are screening for the right skills to increase the collective intelligence of teams. Third, reward current leaders and managers for sponsoring promising employees and building diverse & inclusive high-performing teams. And lastly, establish and communicate with transparency about the selection criteria, so your employees don’t have to guess the secret sauce to joining your programs.  

Welcome to business as unusual.  We hope you’ll share with us the impact you create with these strategies.


  1. IDENTIFYING AND ASSESSING HIGH – POTENTIAL TALENT, Current Organizational Practices by Rob Silzer, Allan H. Church
  2. Solving the High Potential Challenge Korn Ferry
  3. Using succession management to create talent flow: 10 principles learned from SuccessFactors customers Steven T. Hunt, PhD, SVP Customer Value Realization SuccessFactors/SAP Human Capital Management © 2015 SuccessFactors, Inc. All rights reserved.
  4. Evidence for a Collective Intelligence Factor in the Performance of Human Groups, Anita Williams Woolley1 et al, Science 29 Oct 2010: Vol. 330, Issue 6004, pp. 686-688, DOI: 10.1126/science.1193147
  5. Why Men Still Get More Promotions Than Women by Herminia Ibarra, Nancy M. Carter, and Christine Silva, Harvard Business Review, Sept 2010

Authors: Venus Rekow & Linda Bookey.