How to Prevent High Potential Burnout

How to Prevent High Potential Burnout

By | August 7, 2019

Today’s High Potential Programs Face Challenges

As Baby Boomers exit the workforce at a pace of 10,000 per day, as many as 84% of organizations anticipate a shortfall of leaders over the next five years. In response to this looming crisis, companies are pouring more than $50 billion per year into accelerated leadership development for high potential leaders.

However, most of these programs fall short of their goals. More than half of HR professionals lack confidence in their high potential programs and 73% of programs programs fail to deliver business outcomes or ROI. To make matters worse, as many as 20% of top leaders are affected by burnout and we know that at least 61% of executives were not prepared for the challenges they faced when they got into senior leadership roles.

Without the necessary support and training, most leaders struggle through transitions. Download our latest whitepaper to find out why.

What is behind this abysmal success rate? The reason so many high potentials fail when they get promoted to a new role is that most organizations focus their resources and support on aiding high potentials in their current role. This does not, however, mean that they are being properly prepared for future roles in senior leadership. This often results in underperformance, burnout, and a failure to retain good talent.

What does it really take to lead?

High potentials transitioning into senior leadership roles face innumerable obstacles. We asked senior coaches from the AIIR Global Coaching Alliance to identify the top abilities leaders must have in order to succeed in executive roles. AIIR Consulting’s research and the existing research on leadership transition point to six areas that are critical for success:

  1. Building relationships
  2. Understanding and aligning with the business
  3. Identifying and achieving quick wins
  4. Understanding organizational culture
  5. Self-management
  6. Building and maintaining a high-performing team

While some leaders are able to develop these skills on their own, it is unlikely to happen at scale without organizational programming. The best companies employ structured training and support that encourages leaders to focus on these areas. It is a slow down to speed up method.

Often, the most successful of these programs include executive coaching — a proven method for developing great leaders. When coaching is provided to high potential employees transitioning into leadership roles, it acts as a catalyst to help them overcome obstacles and accelerate their time-to-impact

Whether your high potential program includes coaching or not, it is critical that leaders focus on these areas:


1. Building key relationships

A recent survey showed nearly one-third of recently promoted leaders found networking to be a top challenge. When asked what would have helped them most, 29% said more face time with mentors and colleagues. Leaders need to assess their stakeholder landscape and establish rapport with the key individuals who will be vital to their success. One of the biggest errors often made in designing leadership development programs is failing to build in time for relationship-building and networking.

2. Understanding and aligning with the business

Understanding the leader’s role within the context of their business unit and also in the larger organization is essential for high potential leaders. However, achieving clarity when you’re “drinking from a fire hose” is often easier said than done. It is important to identify goals that are not only relevant, but are also closely aligned with what the business needs now.

3. Identifying and achieving quick wins

When done wrong, chasing quick wins can be a catastrophic mistake. As Dan Ciampa wrote in the Harvard Business Review, “rushing toward early wins…can be unexpectedly hazardous. That’s because when a new leader takes hold, changes aren’t just about efficiency or revenue; they are also about people’s feelings of vulnerability and uncertainty about what the changes will mean for them.” However, with good business alignment, leaders can identify the right opportunities to build credibility with their new teams. This is especially important when navigating the steep learning curve that comes with entering senior leadership. With the right guidance, high potential leaders can carefully leverage initial success as a foundation for new relationships.

4. Understanding organizational culture

In a Harvard Business Review article, AIIR Board member Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic and Clarke Murphy state: “an essential element of effective leadership is the congruence between leaders’ values and those of the organization.” Organizations with rigorous high potential selection processes are less likely to have incongruence between a new leader’s values and those of their organization or team. However, another recent article revealed as many as 40% of individuals in high potential programs may not belong there. It is important to adapt to the organizational culture while still identifying areas of the culture that may be necessary to change.

Self awareness is one area where coaching can truly help leaders accelerate their development. Download our latest whitepaper to find out why.

5. Self-awareness

In order to succeed, leaders need to understand their strenghts, mitigate their weaknesses, and practice self-management. McKinsey points out that “Becoming a more effective leader often requires changing behavior. But although most companies recognize that this also means adjusting underlying mindsets, too often these organizations are reluctant to address the root causes of why leaders act the way they do.” Without self-awareness, leaders struggle to understand the underlying mindsets that drive their behavior, preventing them from achieving meaningful change. This is one area where we strongly recommend leveraging an executive coach. Coaching can give high potentials a holistic view of their strengths and weaknesses, help new leaders understand the habits that drive their behavior, and give them the tools to create real, sustainable improvement to drive their success.

6. Building and managing a high-performing team

Creating a high-performing team is about more than putting the right individuals in place and setting targets. Leaders should carefully assess their team’s team’s culture and productivity and identify the right opportunities to strengthen the team. In Google’s recent comprehensive study of its own managers and leaders, they identified 10 leadership qualities that resulted in the highest-performing teams in the massive organization. At the top of the list is being “a good coach”. While most high potential employees are not natural coaches, this is a trainable skill that can be developed along with self-awareness and interpersonal sensitivity.

It is more important than ever that new leaders build high-performing teams. Download our Team Effectiveness whitepaper for practical tips on strengthening team culture and team productivity. 

The Case for Coaching

When high potential employees are offered support throughout and beyond their transition into an organizational leadership role, it can dramatically improve their odds of success. It can reduce their likelihood of burnout and it can accelerate their impact. Some studies have found that these efforts can reduce the amount of time it takes them to reach full effectiveness from six months to four.

That can create a big impact on the bottom line. Research shows that 90% of teams whose leader had a successful transition meet or exceed 3-year performance goals. They also experience higher engagement, lower turnover, and higher discretionary effort from employees. In some cases, they produce profit growth 3x more than their competitors. With the right organizational investment, your leadership development program can outperform industry averages and prepare your organization for the challenges ahead.

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