With accounting grads in demand at Big Four firms, Ernst & Young's interest in Stephanie Goldberg, an accounting major at Pennsylvania State University, was no surprise. She just didn't expect it to come so soon. This spring, she took part in a pre-internship development program, where she was plucked from among the 1,000-plus participants to attend a gratis three-day seminar at Miami University of Ohio for "high-potential" talent. The surprise? When Goldberg first came to E&Ys attention she was a sophomore who hadn't applied for an internship, much less a full-time job.
Companies such as Ernst & Young, Deloitte, and Marriott International (MAR), whose futures ride on their ability to attract and retain the Stephanie Goldbergs of the world, are rapidly redefining the fast track. Once, up-and-comers were separated from the herd in the first few years on the job. Now the handpicking begins much earlier—in some cases long before they have the job—followed by an accelerated career path that can take them from newbie to boss in almost no time.
In part, the new fast track is a retention tool, but it's also a way to identify and develop leaders for companies facing an exodus of boomer veterans. According to Development Dimensions International (DDI), a global HR consultant, nearly 40% of North American employers now have programs to accelerate the careers of high-potentials. "It's like gymnastics," says DDI Vice-President Matt Paese. "At the age of four, scouts aren't looking for strength and speed but psychological and mental toughness and curiosity."
For those whizzes, the new approach provides an opportunity to land an important job at an early age. At the three-day seminar she attended, Goldberg got to hobnob with corporate recruiters and executives while taking part in role-playing exercises and case studies. "It was a really good opportunity to apply everything from school," says Goldberg. "It was an awesome time."
At rival Deloitte, a program launched in 2003 identifies high potentials for a four-day national leadership conference. In 2007, 470 students—some as young as 19—took part in team-building and networking activities with Deloitte brass. The best get internship or job offers and become senior consultants or auditors in two years.
The jury is still out on how effective the new fast-track programs are for companies. Since most are brand new, nobody knows if the individuals singled out for special treatment will ultimately end up in the executive ranks or if the programs will trigger a backlash, increasing resentment, disengagement, and turnover among employees not chosen. Marriott, which holds a leadership summit for top interns each summer, doesn't publicly identify high potentials once they're hired for just this reason. "I don't think it does a whole lot of good," says David A. Rodriguez, executive vice-president of global human resources.
Even companies that still develop talent the old-fashioned way—waiting a few years before crowning the next generation of leaders—are making special efforts to identify and nurture their stars. At Philips Electronics (PHG), top performers with at least three years at the company are identified by their managers, then shuttled off to an evaluation center for an appraisal of their skills and an exploration of career opportunities.
For the chosen few, there are frequent lunches with CEO Gerard Kleisterlee, even an internal newsletter with updates on their career progress. "Whenever I travel, there are three things on my agenda," he says. "Meeting with local management, seeing a customer, and having lunch with young high potentials."