Finding and Keeping Your High Potential Employees

HR leaders face a daunting talent market with historically low unemployment in the U.S. and Canada. In addition, retaining and attracting talent was found to be the top internal issue for CEOs in a recent global survey. This demand for finding new talent and then keeping that talent is a daily struggle that sucks up countless hours. Fortunately, there is a tried and true method for retaining talent: identify and nurture high potential employees.

Retaining talent by investing in high potential employees is a place for creativity, not layering on more job responsibilities in an attempt to get the high potential employee to do “more.” Ask any high potential employee (HiPo) what their last company did when they were labeled with the honor of being high potential: they were worked tirelessly. Make no bones about it – in this tight labor market, your HiPos have choices and options like never before! But you have the edge – they are already with you, and chances are, keen to grow and develop their career with you. You just need to take action to engage and retain them.

Don’t be the organization that loses HiPos to savvier competitors. Here’s how to identify, manage and retain these valuable colleagues.

What’s a high potential employee?

Quite often, managers confuse high potential employees with high-performing employees. Remember that potential and performance are two different things. In essence, high potential employees like their work, want to do more, always go the extra mile, and can envision a future for themselves in your organization. These are people who will take on greater and greater responsibility and make increasingly complex decisions.

We need to understand the difference between these two types of employees because we want to make sure we’re building strong teams for the future. Although we all need high-performing employees, high potentials are more likely to excel in critical job roles. Just because someone can close a deal or write a stellar proposal doesn’t mean they will be ready to shoulder more responsibility or even want to take on a leadership role.

Identifying HiPos

We know that high potential employees are more likely to rock senior positions in your organization’s future. Great! But how do we know who they are?

This is one place where talent management technology will give a big assist, especially if it allows your organization to recognize and track insights around potential. If you have tools like this, you’ll want to train your managers on what constitutes high potential in your company as a first step.

Identifying your high-potentials is not easy. See “Four ‘Red Flags’ to Watch For When You Try to Predict High Potential

Working with managers, identify people with high potential on their teams. And then, ask these people what they want and try to make it happen! For instance, they may want a stretch assignment, opportunities to work on multi-disciplinary teams to get exposed to other areas of the business, or participate in an internal emerging leader program.

But before greenlighting a new opportunity, make sure to remove the employee’s lower-level tasks or administrative burdens so they can embrace their new experience without feeling like it’s just more work.

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Active career planning with employees is another route to identifying HiPos. As you discuss their current capabilities, strengths and interests, you may be able to identify opportunities where employees are ready NOW to move to the next challenge. Look for opportunities to build development plans to get them ready for those opportunities for which they are not ready to move into – but with a dedicated plan to close any capabilities gap. Don’t miss the opportunity to encourage and set the plan to fast track them to the next step in their career with your organization.

Managing high potentials

When examining ways to manage HiPo engagement, look to growth opportunities and experiences rather than promotions. While we all like a paycheck bump and a fancy new title, research from CEB, now Gartner, shows HiPos are 15% more likely to leave than other employees when they are disappointed with their future opportunities.

Engage in regular feedback conversations. Remember that not every employee will tell you their aspirations or what they value – it’s important to ask them! If we know high potential employees outperform the average employee and we really want to retain them, then ask them what they value. Quick surveys through your talent management platform can take the pulse of what your HiPos (or other groups) really think. Use the data for comparison and gap identification against what the leadership and executive team believes is critical. I’m willing to bet there will be some surprises.

Retaining HiPos

Although some organizations shy away from letting a team member know they’ve been identified as a high potential employee, that’s a short-sighted view. Every company should want to develop their people. Consider talent pools as a way for employees to gain the skills that they – and the company – need to be successful.

Employee coaching is another way to help retain HiPos. Your high potentials may not know every step – they may know where they want to go or what the possibilities are, but they don’t have a clear understanding of the path to get there. Coaching can help pull it all together. When you coach your HiPos, focus in on creating action plans that are layered with accountability. Contrast this with a non-HiPo employee who feels they are drifting. Who will stay at the company longer?

Your superstars are waiting to be identified, managed and retained. As HR leaders, we need to make the most of this tried-and-true strategy for keeping our high potential employees. If we don’t, they will find our competitors, and no one wants that. Starting today, think like a high potential employee and let the stars shine.

As the principal product manager, customer success in Saba's Strategic Services group, Anita Bowness draws on more than 20 years' experience in consulting and professional services to help HR leaders recruit, engage, develop and retain their talent. Anita has been published in HR Daily Advisor and HRO Today, featured in an interview on BBC Capital and presented at DisruptHR Ottawa, Saba Insight and Halogen TalentSpace Live. Although she's worked with hundreds of organizations from IT to healthcare, Anita never loses sight of what HR is really about: people. Anita loves helping organizations manage performance so people are more engaged, happier and productive.

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