Some employees are better than others. They consistently and significantly outperform their peer groups in a variety of settings and circumstances, exhibiting behaviors that reflect their companies’ values and illustrate a capacity to grow. These high potentials are the top 3 to 5 percent of a company’s talent, according to the Harvard Business Review, and some argue they require special treatment.
While devoting a disproportionate amount of resources to the selected few might cause learning leaders to overlook the potential contributions of the many and dampen the motivation of those classified as mediocre, companies that are not paying attention to or challenging their stars are at risk of losing them.
“When we seek to develop high potentials, we undershoot,” said Gregg Thompson, president of Bluepoint Leadership Development. “We create leadership development programs for high potentials and don’t stretch them. These programs should be very, very difficult. They should have incredible rigor and target where employees want to go rather than focusing on where they are today. If you stretch people, they know there’s something special about them, even if they fail in the process.”
According to “Identifying and Developing High-Potential Talent,” a 2011 study by AMA Enterprise, a division of the American Management Association, 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. Identifying and developing future leaders is an imperative business function, but most companies don’t have formal high-potential programs geared toward identifying and developing their strongest employees.
“The capacity to learn is the distinguishing feature of successful leaders these days,” Thompson said. “Leaders [who] are succeeding today are not the ones [who] know the most, they’re the ones that learn the fastest and have an urge to be developed. Organizations who don’t focus on bringing their employees up are going to lose a valuable asset.”
The challenge for employers is balancing the need to classify and develop high potentials with the necessity to ensure the rest of the workforce remains committed to the organization’s mission.
“First there was a revolution in information,” said Sandi Edwards, senior vice president for AMA Enterprise. “There was a time when senior management withheld knowledge from the rest of the organization. It’s now transferred and distributed, and we have far wiser organizations because of that. Everybody understands the rationale and is on the same train, going to the same station. We need to get there with identifying and developing high potentials.”
According to Edwards, employees should know the criteria to be classified as a high-potential employee. They should know the answers when asking: What is my manager looking for? What kind of contributions do I need to make in this company to be seen as somebody who would be valued not only for now, but for the future?
“If you’re transparent about where the company is going, what it takes to be a leader in that company now and in the future and appreciative of all the pieces of the puzzle that it takes to complete the puzzle, you have the complete entity and everybody understands where they fit, how they play out and if they want to go further, what it’s going to take,” she said.
By designing a high-potential selection process, organizations can maximize their ability to develop future leaders and reduce tension in the workforce. As the economy stabilizes, the rate of dissatisfaction in companies will continue to rise precipitously, according to a 2010 survey by consultancy the Corporate Executive Board. Retaining and developing employees, especially high-potentials, will be to a company’s competitive advantage.
“You need to help leaders and their team members understand the roles they play and what the communication protocols are for high potential programs so expectations are clear,” said Kristen Brown, manager of organizational development at Shoppers Drug Mart, a retail pharmacy chain in Canada.
To identify high potentials, Shoppers Drug Mart leverages its succession planning processes to discuss strengths and opportunity areas for talent and development actions. Leaders use guiding questions to understand an individual’s ability, aspiration and engagement as indicators of potential to succeed in more critical roles. They also factor in the individual’s track record for performance, as well as his or her demonstration of the company’s leadership success factors.
“We know how we identify and develop leaders is a critical component of our culture,” Brown said. “Through the use of 360-degree feedback, cross-functional learning teams and leadership lessons sent to both the participant and their leader post-session, we provide our talent with a comprehensive leadership development experience that strengthens their leadership ability and benefits their teams and the organization. The feedback has been excellent from participants, [and] their leaders have also identified a benefit from having their team members attend. We have consistently improved the retention rates of our high-potential director-level talent, and we attribute this, in part, to the focus their leaders have placed on developing this key talent pool.”
High potentials get bored easily and thus disengage accordingly. They thrive in an environment where they’re given more. Developing them keeps them challenged, but with a sense of value, and their accelerated skills will benefit their team and the organization’s bottom line.
Ladan Nikravan is an associate editor of Chief Learning Officer magazine. She can be reached at lnikravan@CLOmedia.com.