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High Potentials

High Potential Employees

Every organization wants high potential employees. Here's how to spot them and keep them.

Matthew Reeves

March 10, 2020

One of the hot topics when it comes to employee retention is the value of High Potential Employees and what companies are doing to utilize this resource, while continuing to  support their goals. Studies show that 79 percent of people in the U.S. alone cite “lack of appreciation” as one of the main  reasons for leaving a job. It is the employees with high potential (or HiPos) that make up most of this bracket. They have worked hard and made their goals clear but feel like they are not getting anywhere.

The key is not only to recognize a high potential employee, but build them up, develop their skills and manage them to a point that allows them to pursue and reach their career goals with full support. The reward in recognition is also a huge factor when it comes to high potential employees, and it is crucial in developing somebody further in their career.

Assessing Employee Potential

First of all, it is important to note there is a big difference between employee performance and employee potential. Even though the two can go hand in hand, when it comes to assessing someone as a high potential employee, you need to think about the future and where their ability and drive will take them with the right support. 

A person can  perform well at their job or on a current project, but it doesn’t necessarily promote their potential if there is nothing else to gauge it on.  It is focusing  on the future and what lies ahead that can benefit the individual and the company that is the best way to evaluate their potential.

The problem with this kind of assessment is it is a risk. Building data on a person that might not necessarily exist yet and looking at what someone is capable of isn’t a locked-in guarantee that they will follow through with it. This is why assessing someone’s potential doesn’t just circle around their performance, but takes into account their personality, how they learn and what motivates them. 

There are certain characteristics that an employee who shows great potential may possess. It won’t be a case of them fitting into all the criteria but many of them will be easily recognisable in high potential employees.

  1. They’re good at what they do. This is based on their current and past performance, which isn’t the deal maker or breaker but to identify who has future potential, this trait is definitely a benchmark for success. It is possible to see potential in newer employees who haven’t yet had a chance to show what they are capable of however, so this characteristic is not set in stone.
  1. They get things done and use initiative. Being reliable and able to get on with work or projects is important when it comes to potential. These individuals don’t need to be prompted to complete tasks outside of their job description and want to be trusted to do the job well, so rarely require regular check ins. 
  2. They are eager for new opportunities. New initiative or project that requires team input? They will be happy to jump on board. By volunteering to learn a new skill or take on new responsibility they are excited by the prospect of leaving their comfort zone. Their goal is to improve and to develop their skill set, so the idea of learning new things is what drives them in their career.
  1. They stay calm when under pressure. It is unnatural to assume that all employees manage stressful situations or fast-paced work environments with ease, but an employee with high potential may visibly show their ability to handle pressure with composure and logic. They may even thrive working under pressure.
  2. They care about the success of their company. High potential employees will be invested in a company that offers them opportunity. They will ask questions and want to hear about the company’s success. The idea is that they want to stay and build a long career so understanding the goals of the business and how they can help impact it is of mutual benefit. 

Of course, the characteristics of an employee showing high potential go above and beyond those points, but they are great for direct line managers to easily recognise talent and who is one to watch. 

Their work ethic and drive are not the only way to assess somebody’s potential though. Their personality traits usually shine through to more than just their direct manager they will be evident to  their team as well. An individual who wants to progress within the company and has shown a positive attitude to their work will also show high leadership skills. This includes  being supportive of other employees, offering to help when they need training or assistance with their own workload. 

High potential employees  are great at recognising hard work in others and contributing their own successes to benefit the team. Emotional intelligence is a winning quality and a necessary trait to have in a generation of up and coming millennials  that are eager to get noticed at  Assessing someone’s potential cannot just be based on work quality alone. 

Developing High Potential Employees

Recognising your employees with potential  is only the first of many steps when it comes to managing HiPos. It is all good and well knowing who they are, but they need to be developed and supported along their career journey to be able to live up to their potential. 

From a management or executive perspective, when you have potential employees in mind the first thing you need to plan is what you have them in mind for. Is it for succession planning? For example, is someone retiring or due to leave the company in the near future or do you anticipate managerial openings coming up short or long-term? These kinds of strategic decisions have a huge impact on how fast your high potential employee development plans need to take place. Internal recruitment is not to be ignored when the situation presents valid resources in these employees.

Even if there are no openings or vacancies coming up in the near future, it is a great strategy to keep on revisiting these plans and keeping the dialogue open about HiPos within the business, and not to halt any development as positions or opportunities can present themselves unexpectedly. 

Another important development strategy for high potential employees is to fully assess their existing skills. These are skills they would like to learn and skills that will aid in their future development.   Put plans in motion to get them moving. Which strengths will be beneficial to sharpen? What interpersonal skills can be further nurtured? What weaker areas are crucial to be skilled in to be able to progress? 

Even if there is no promotional opportunity currently, there is still opportunity to build momentum on their progression, so when the right opportunity comes up, they can be ready. 

Investing in high potential employees means investing in their future and the future of the company. Keep in mind that internal recruitment comes at a lower cost than external recruitment. So, this investment means the stakes are higher, but the risk is lower as you are able to see their development and build confidence in it. 

Check for available and relevant courses that can help sharpen their skills, look for projects that may benefit from their input and give them a chance to absorb the higher responsibility. This can include opportunities such as shadowing higher managers or seconding into roles that give them scope of the future in real time. If there are conferences or operational business meetings where important information is discussed and cascaded at higher manager or executive level, see if they are able to sit in on them. This isn’t just beneficial from a learning perspective but also in terms of networking. 

Networking is undeniably vital in terms of progression and for high potential employees it is an opportunity to show who they are, how they are driven and why they deserve to be seen as an integral part of the company. Getting their name on the radar of higher managers in a positive way can open up doors for future opportunity easier than someone who has not had the chance to meet the people who have a massive impact on their career. 

Developing high potential employees means not dropping the ball on opportunities that they can make their mark on. Give them more responsibility to see how they perform with or without instruction, under high pressure or with deadlines and especially how they handle leadership. Projects where they have a chance to shine are invaluable uses of company time and resources when it comes to securing the future of the business. This also gives you the chance to give feedback.

Feedback doesn’t always have to be positive either, critical feedback from manager to employee has to be constructive in order for them to learn from the experience and employees with high potential will value the feedback as they already have the drive to succeed and improve. 

High Potential Employee Programs

There are bespoke programs that each company can take on board when it comes to their HiPos, starting with creating a talent pool of employees that go beyond the ones to watch. A program should collate information on those with potential and work out what it is they need to reach the next level of their career.

Start with intense but targeted training courses that fill in knowledge gaps, assist with leadership skills and go as far as training in presentation skills, speaking in front of audiences, taking leadership on group projects or coming up with new initiatives that the company hasn't thought of yet. 

These opportunities are measurable, and progress is visible from this kind of training within a program as it allows HR departments and higher-level managers to see the impact that the program is having on individuals over a period of time. 

Involvement from senior leaders is not just encouraged but necessary for a program like this to be successful. Their support and guidance during the process gives  employees a feeling that they are valued and their progress matters. It exposes them to a senior way of thinking, where processes and ideas are alternative to what they are used to in their normal role. 

Framework for a high potential leadership program should be accessible to all parties involved so everyone can see timescales and expectations for various training modules. It acts as a measurable device which is incredibly useful when there are talks of succession planning in the future. 

Alongside this, full access to modules should be given to high potential employees for the duration of a program, inclusive of e-courses and e-learning modules, internal management systems and training or dummy programs. Allow reading to take place at any time improves and increases the learning curve and lets candidates in the program solidify their understanding of content in various modules. 

Mentoring programs are other options for HiPos, where they have exposure to top executives or people in senior roles. This kind of exposure is definitely valuable for those who have been established in the “exceeding expectations” category of potentials as the investment is not for the short-term or for those unsure of their future within the company. 

Rewarding High Potential Employees

Good rates of pay and increased benefits within a company are a great way to tell employees that they are valued, but it can be a tricky way to manage high potential employees and keep them engaged with a program. How much is enough? Is it going to conflict with other wages? It opens up a conversation about pay and reward that should be decided on a structured basis, or it could get messy. 

 There are other ways to keep engagement and drive moving forward without taking advantage of employees’ hard work, and instead making sure it is mutually beneficial. 

Tell them they are valued – This seems quite obvious, but it is quite common for managers to either forget to share this information or to withhold the information until they are sure. There is no reward in keeping an employee with high potential in the dark about their ability and that it has been noticed by the people that matter to their career. 

The reward in itself can be the boost in confidence from knowing they are valued, which in turn drives them to work harder toward their goal. In terms of employee retention, this tip cannot be ignored.

Create specific action plans – They want to be supported and want to know what the next step is and cannot do this without having a proposed plan that shows their company is invested in them. The reward is in taking the next step, which is usually new territory, helping to avoid stagnant work environments and less than enthusiastic feelings toward their job. 

Give them some real responsibility – This one you have to be careful of so that you are giving them a taster of the type of work they are training for but without taking advantage of their position and job expectations. 

While it is good to have someone enthusiastic about learning and taking on new opportunities, the reward is balance between providing the scope for learning a new or more senior role while reflecting it in their pay and benefits. 

High potential employees are the future of current business practices, and someday with the right support, training framework and opportunities they will become leaders that have been built on today’s ideologies. 

Set clear expectations from the beginning with all employees and let your employees know the criteria of what you are looking for in potential leaders. The groundwork has to be set to begin with for employees with high potential to know what they are driving toward. 

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