High Potentials: You Need to Feed Your Stars or Kiss Them Goodbye

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Apr 17, 2013

I recall with sincere fondness the memory of playing certain childhood games — Sorry, Monopoly, LIFE, and one of my personal favorites, Chutes and Ladders.

Now, each of these has messaging, or themes, that could be related in some fashion or another to Corporate America – risk/reward; entrepreneurial spirit; getting ahead with good deeds and jobs well done; dropping down a few rungs on the ladder for our mistakes, etc., etc.

However, I’ll spare you my trite connections (Connect Four!) on these beloved games, and instead turn my attention towards the world of the hungry, hungry High-Potentials.

Defining a high-potential

Let’s first talk about in plain, simple terms what it means to be a high-potential, or HiPo. Generally speaking, high-potentials are employees who can develop into leaders, rather than those who just do the job. Research by the Harvard Business Review shows high potentials represent the top 3 to 5% percent of a company’s talent.

High-potential employees are generally considered highly intelligent, talented, ambitious, and extremely motivated. They represent the company’s values and continue to produce work that is above and beyond what is required.

When it comes to grooming new managers and leaders, you need to identify the right employees as high potentials because obviously not everyone is qualified to be a leader. Once these high-potentials are identified, the company must ensure it is providing these workers with the resources to grow and evolve within the company.

However, it seems most companies are failing to do so.

The problem retaining HiPos

According to Identifying and Developing High-Potential Talent, a 2011 study by AMA Enterprise, a division of the American Management Association, about one in four employers is seen as ineffective in retaining high-potential workers. Slightly more than half of survey respondents reported their organizations are somewhat effective in their ability to retain high-potential employees.

Developing future leaders should be essential, but many companies don’t invest in programs that can help identify and develop their strongest employees. I’m sorry to say that if your company operates this way, you can say goodbye to your high-potentials.

The findings of a employee engagement study by The Corporate Executive Board (CEB) revealed that 25 percent of employer-identified, high-potential employees plan to leave their current companies within the year, as compared to only 10 percent in 2006.

Pretty shocking, isn’t it? This study was released in 2010, so it would be interesting to find out if those employees surveyed actually left the company or not. Or worse, they “quit” and stayed. So, what’s one of the keys in keeping your HiPos?

Talent development

Most of you would likely agree that developing top talent is critical to a company’s survival. So, why is it then that such an important component to an organization’s success is often ignored? Before we attempt to answer that question let’s review a scenario playing out daily within thousands of companies.

A friend of a friend was working for a Fortune 500 company in their marketing department. I’ll save you the full biography, but it’s safe to say she’s the definition of a high-potential. The problem was she never received any recognition or growth opportunities. Tired of the lack of career advancement opportunities in the company, she sent her resume to other companies.

She received a job offer, and was ready to put in her notice when her current company told her, before she could quit, that she was being incorporated into strategic planning and being groomed for a leadership role. Her company put her through a development program, and long story short, she’s now the director of marketing for that company.

When the company began to show interest in the promise of this individual’s leadership skills, she got more engaged within the company and turned into an even more productive employee than she already was. If nothing had changed, she surely would have accepted the other job offer.

Again, there’s nothing unique about this example. It happens every day. Yet, it’s still surprising to me how frequently we allow some of our best and brightest to escape our clutches.

Taking our best for granted

After all, we spent a meaningful amount of time and energy defining the roles these individuals would fill, interviewing them, training them, and providing on-the-job feedback; seemingly so that they would stay with our organization and succeed. It reminds me of all the companies out there vying for our personal business, only to finally grab our attention, sign us up, and then promptly take us for granted. You know who you are.

Getting back to the “Why,” talent development is often not deemed a priority, or is grossly underfunded. Do you think some companies, or managers within those companies, simply regard training and development as distractions from work and barriers to productivity? Perhaps, they view employees only as resources to complete today’s assignments? Another cog in the wheel – easily replaced should one break down.

Take a few seconds to think of a skilled employee at your company, and contemplate the difficulty of having to replace that employee. How long would it take to train a replacement? Does the thought scare you a bit? It should. It scares me.

This is why so much emphasis needs to be placed on talent development.

Tips for managing high potentials

If you’re not feeding these HiPos in the form of providing challenging assignments, achievable stretch goals, opportunities for advancement (salary, title, and responsibilities), and investing in their ongoing development then all you’re really doing is providing an unintentional talent pipeline for your competition. Good luck with that!

Here are some talent development tips I find helpful for high-potentials:

  • Meet with your high-potentials regularly, not just at appraisal time. Review progress on their development plans and on their career planning. If there are stumbling blocks, ask: “What do you need to successfully meet this goal?” Do your best to provide what they need.
  • Find out about the training and development opportunities available in your organization, and pass this information along. Encourage high-potentials to participate in these activities, and allow work time for this whenever possible.
  • Learn how to empower high-potentials to contribute at higher levels through providing special assignments, constructive feedback, and targeted development opportunities.
  • Be a role model for development by openly pursuing learning and taking risk.

Look, we all know how important it is to properly identify these high-potentials and give them the tools they need to succeed. It’s not easy, it’s certainly time consuming, and let’s be honest – we have a lot of other things on our plates that need attention.

I think most of you will agree with me though, that it’s well worth the energy. The sooner we realize the full potential of these overachievers, the better off our companies will be.


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