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How BAE Systems Uses High-Potential Development As a Catalyst for Professional Growth and Retention

BAE Systems Inc., the U.S. subsidiary of BAE Systems plc, is a top aerospace, defense and security contractor. The company delivers products and services that span electronic systems, maritime and land platforms, intelligence and support services, munitions, cyber-security, and other areas. BAE Systems’ work enables military, government and commercial customers to recognize, manage, and defeat threats. The U.S.-headquartered operations generated $10 billion in 2017, with a workforce of 32,100 employees.  

To remain a premier company in today’s national security marketplace, BAE Systems needs to ensure it develops and—importantly—retains its high-potential talent. In a highly specialized sector where talent is in demand and actively recruited, organizational success depends not only on employees’ technical and leadership skills, but also on their ability to shape their career direction and attain their career goals at BAE Systems.

This case study represents BAE Systems' submission to the i4cp Next Practice Awards. The awards were presented at the i4cp 2019 Next Practices Now Conference.   

Business Challenge 

The two backdrop challenges that drove creation of BAE Systems’ Catalyst program are not unique to defense/aerospace, but are challenges the company experiences intensely because of the influence on its very specialized workforce by the “war for talent” (recruitment) and competition to keep top-performing talent (retention) 

Those factors were exacerbated at BAE Systems because a large population of the company’s employees are retirement-ready. To respond effectively, the organization needed to develop internal talent by identifying high-potentials earlier in their careers, developing them and assuring they have career paths that excite, motivate and retain them.  

Fully optimizing the internal pipeline of high-potentials created an organizational need and talent management imperative to ensure that early career employees develop the business acumen, communication skills, networks and—ultimately—self-management skills to become the managers/executives of tomorrow. From this imperative, Catalyst was born.  


BAE Systems launched an initiative in 2013 to address recruitment/retention talent risks and meet the company’s workforce-related needs, Catalyst is a professional development program specifically for high-potential early career talent (5-10 years of professional experience) who exhibit consistent top-level performance and have the desire and potential to assume leadership roles in the future.  

Catalyst was designed to enable participants (termed delegates) to:  

  • Build self-development and self-management capabilities essential to successful leadership
  • Engage in hands-on stretch assignments to build personal leadership and teamwork skills
  • Broaden business acumen
  • Expand personal/professional networks within the company  

Implementing an Early Career High-Potential Program :  

Catalyst was structured as a year-long program with a deliberate mix of modalities for learning and engagement:  

  • Pre-work: Coming to the table ready for self-development
    • Prior to kick-off, delegates complete self-assessments that help them shape their own professional development by understanding their core values, strengths and communication/leadership styles. 
  • Network/team-building
    • Two five-day, face-to-face, interactive and immersive gatherings enable delegates to build networks across locations/operations.  
    • Management involvement: The program is hosted by a team of executive champions who participate in sessions, mentor delegates and coach action-learning teams.  
  • Action learning
    • Leadership/teamwork cannot be taught in a training room; the most impactful learning is experiential. To this end, delegates apply their evolving business acumen and self-development to a year-long action-learning team-based project that serves as an incubator for skill-building: 
    • Executives identify real-world challenges/business needs, i.e., “examine the utility/feasibility of in-house 3D-printing” to “provide recommendations for how Specialty Engineering Resources assets should be maintained.”  
    • Assigned teams collaborate to research and recommend. As needs being studied are not hypotheticals, delegates are encouraged to meet with managers/executives to understand the challenges/opportunities, budget constraints, and complexities. Individually and as a team, delegates assess opportunities/vulnerabilities, forge recommendations and explain decisions. 

Action-learning activities bolster teamwork, self-management, time/project management skills; the final project drives home communication and presentation skills: 

  • Catalyst culminates with team presentations of action-learning recommendations to a panel of senior leaders. Following months of mentorship and a final week of presentation-skills coaching, delegates give a “Shark Tank”-style presentation.   
  • Teams have the direct ear of management. Recommendations are questioned, evaluated and, many times, implemented. 
  • Virtual learning
    • Webinars reinforce skill-building and may focus on operations for one class, conflict resolution for another, enabling Catalyst to be responsive to the interests/needs of each class.  
  • Alumni engagement
    • Formal and informal programs/networking opportunities continue after Catalyst graduation. Additionally, two members of each graduating class are selected to mentor/coach the next class.  

Barriers :  

  • Cost: At the time of launch in 2013, aerospace funding was in a downturn. There was a need to address the talent shortage/improve retention; but limited budget. The Talent Solutions team built Catalyst from scratch rather than outsource. Today, the team continues to lead Catalyst by using internal professional trainers and management mentors rather than paying outside vendors.  
  • Workload Priorities: Catalyst delegates are away from their jobs for the face-to-face sessions. They allocate 3-5 hours per week to action-learning projects on top of existing workload. This is a significant ask of delegates, yet from a development perspective they learn how to balance competing priorities and tackle stretch projects.  
  • Manager push-back: Given the added workload, delegates’ managers were concerned. Certainly, successful participation of each delegate depends on manager support. To address this, Catalyst involves delegates’ managers.
    • Timed to program kick-off with delegates, there is a virtual kick-off with their managers to clarify program demands. The Talent Solutions team articulates how Catalyst will benefit delegates’ performance. At culmination, managers are invited to graduation to support/celebrate their employees.  


Companies pay a high price for loss of young talent. Catalyst shows that BAE Systems can address this retention issue internally and at a low-cost, while building the leadership pipeline:  

  • Retention success: A key objective of Catalyst is to retain high-performing employees. Overall, 96% (104 of 108 Catalyst graduates 2013-2017) are still with the company.  
  • Promotions/grade increases: A key Catalyst goal is for graduates to have a career trajectory at BAE Systems. Today, 40% (43/108) of Catalyst graduates have received at least one promotion; 28% (30/108) are formally identified as potential long-term successors to leaders in executive roles—an impressive statistic at this career level.  
  • Feedback: Pre- and post-program delegate feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. Of particular note, agreement with a career planning measure (“I have a high-impact career development plan”) grew from 14% to 79% in the most recent class; professional network measure (“I have a strong network of contacts”) grew from 32% to 89%.  
  • Demand: Business units are requesting approval to send increasing numbers of employees, and the Talent Solutions team has been asked to run two Catalyst programs per year, further demonstrating success. While current resources won’t allow increased offerings, meeting that demand is a focus of talent development planning.  

A particular area of pride is that several of the recommendations from the action-learning projects have been adopted/implemented. Catalyst teams applied their skills, had a voice to management and had recommendations put into practice. This has been an organic outgrowth of the program that powerfully demonstrates to participants the value that they as individuals—and that Catalyst as a development tool—bring to BAE Systems.  

Finally, informal, but important, feedback has focused on the transformed presentation and influence skills of graduates. During offsites, delegates give multiple presentations and receive real-time feedback. The “Shark Tank” presentation further hones skills. Improved/transformed presentation skills are visible across the company and have become a hallmark of Catalyst graduates.  


The five-to-ten-year mark into careers is a pivotal time: initial expertise has been developed and people are looking for their next challenges. Catalyst has provided a challenging experience that develops employees for what’s next. Participants emerge with stronger networks, improved ability to collaborate and with heightened self-awareness that allows them to keep growing and develop into effective leaders. The attention to the fundamentals of self-management for early-career high-potentials applies and evolves throughout a career.  

Today, five years after its launch, Catalyst has helped foster a growth-mindset culture that recognizes continuous personal/professional development as a necessity for individual contributors, top executives…and everyone in-between.  

While the core focus/mission of Catalyst hasn’t changed, the Talent Solutions team applied lessons learned to continue to evolve the program:  

  • Select delegates who are proactive and hold themselves accountable.
    • Today’s highly selective application process includes behavioral interviews with questions focused on prior learning experiences. Responses help identify applicants with openness to taking risks, pushing beyond comfort zones and growing from experience. 
  • Maximize the contributions of senior executives through careful upfront planning and efficient use of their time.  
  • Identify action-learning projects that are part of existing efforts (versus new initiatives) to provide the greatest chance for adoption/implementation.  

Catalyst is a sought-after program with demand continuing into the foreseeable future. In BAE Systems’ dynamic environment, the self-development and self-management focus of Catalyst will serve as the foundation for managing self, others, teams, and business units as high-potentials stay and flourish within the organization over the long term.