High potentials in today’s talent war: why are so many companies losing (them)?

By Philip Waterhouse

In most companies, you might expect the bench of High Potentials to be the most secure, loyal employees in any Company. Sadly, the talent war waging across Europe is challenged this legitimate expectation. 

The recent article in McKinsey Quarterly “European talent is ready to walk out of the door. How should companies respond?” by Vincent Bérubé, Dana Maor, Marino Mugayar-Baldocchi, and Angelika Reich1 warns that one in three EU workers is considering quitting in the next 3-6 months!

The McKinsey team offers 5 recommendations for companies to ‘get ahead of this issue and stop employees from walking out of the door’. Their #1 recommendation is to increase salaries! Unfortunately, High Potentials are likely to be at the upper level of their relevant Comp & Ben salary band, making this obvious solution a non-starter. 2 of their other 5 recommendations point to the same solution. Namely ‘investing in the development’ of their talents.

In my book “Win, Win, Win – A New Dimension To Winning In Your Business” I bring a new 3rd dimension to the well-known concept of WIN-WIN -the MUTUAL WIN. Not just, I Win, or You Win, but We Win together. There is no obvious MUTUAL WIN between Companies & their High Potentials, than investing in their personal development, such as skills to make them a more effective leader. Both parties benefit! So why do so few companies do it!

In the article “Developing the Global Leader of Tomorrow”, Matthew Gitsham of Ashridge Business School2 tells us that ‘only 7% of senior managers believe their companies develop global leaders effectively’. In too many companies the Learning & Development (L&D) budget is seen as the lowest-priority, first-to-cut budget line.

Investing in the leadership development of High Potentials is a serious solution to stopping them from walking out the door. In my view, however, many traditional leadership development programs don’t pass muster. Executive MBAs are prohibitively expensive in both their full- and part-time versions and invariably demand excessive personal and professional sacrifices. Getting a ‘lip-service’ diploma from a 3-4 day leadership courses will not make you a leader either. In fact, they’re more likely to line a CV than affordably achieve heir objective.

So, what are the 5 success factors in a WINNING leadership development program?

  1. Don’t just stick to your own industry! Make sure that there’s a rich mix of businesses from different industry sectors around the table – B2B & D2C; product- & service-based; publicly quoted & family-run.
  2. Push your High Potentials out of their comfort zone. Expose them to peers from other companies.
  3. Confront them with real-life strategic issues from unfamiliar business sectors. Not theory. This broadens your business shoulders, tests your intuition and gives you the courage to go out of your comfort zone once back in your own company.
  4. Ensure to tackle ‘must-have’ operational & aspirational leadership skills that are relevant to all industry sectors and business functions. Classic skills that are in post-pandemic upheaval, such as ‘How To Motivate Your Team’ or How to Manage Change’. Contemporary skills – such as ‘Understanding Sustainability’ & ‘360° Customer Experience’ – simply must be in all leadership kit bags going forward.
  5. Becoming a more effective leader takes time. It’s in both the employee’s and employer’s interests. Look for a program that is split into a series of sessions of a long period, like a year. Participants will grow through the program and will find it easier to both manage operational responsibilities and give the program their full participation.

Even in today’s talent war, there is no reason to LOSE your Company’s High Potentials! Invest in their leadership development and you can WIN! Your High Potentials will WIN too!

If any of this resonates, I recently created The Leadership Experience, a new leadership development program, that has these success factors built in. If you want to know more about it, reach out to me or click on this video link for more details.


In his 35 years of FMCG experience, Philip Waterhouse over spent 25 years in senior, international leadership roles in 4 different market-leading companies. During this period, Philip did not receive any leadership development training – despite his success! Research demonstrates that Philip’s experience is the rule – not the exception. Inspired by his MBA learning methods and accompanied by some of Europe’s leading Leadership Experts, Philip has created the leadership development program – The Leadership Experience – that both Participating Companies & their High-Potential Employees would love to have but just don’t!  Philip is the author of “Win, Win, Win – A New Dimension To Winning in Your Business” and a part-time lecturer and tutor in the Executive MBA at EM Lyon Business School.

Related post