Engaging high potential employees – it’s not as simple as it sounds

Posted by Lewis Garrad on Wed, Jan 25, 2017

6pf6daiwz48-rayi-christian-wicaksono.jpgCoaching high potential employees to find impact, challenge and meaningful relationships at work can help create stronger motivation, commitment, and retention.

If identifying high potential employees is the most important talent management challenge that companies face, it’s arguable that creating a compelling career for high potentials comes in at a close second. With so many dollars spent on programs to develop leadership succession and capability, it’s important to get a good return on your investment. Keeping top talent learning, motivated, and committed is critical to doing that. 

Many organizations understand this but the basic assumption seems to be that the expanded opportunities afforded to someone who has been identified as top talent should be enough – this most often includes increased access to senior leaders, special projects, and extra training. However, with so much passive job seeking these days (thanks to sites like LinkedIn) and an increasingly diverse workforce to deal with, leaders often find that their programs are not helping to create the “stickiness” they need. Indeed, in Sirota's own projects we find that top talent is rarely more positive about their organization than the average employee.

So how can programs be designed to boost success? Once the science of talent and personality assessments help you make good decisions about what candidates to pick, the science of engagement should help you to get them to stay. Here are three key issues that you should consider:

  • Give them the right feedback. Tagging someone as top talent usually means directing more investment and attention to them. This can be a double-edged sword as colleagues can notice the imbalance of resources that are being used for their development. Highly confident and ambitious characters, who get themselves noticed easily, might even start to act in more self-centered and entitled ways. As the fascinating research into toxic employees shows, there’s no point having a superstar if they suck performance from other members of their team. Although it’s tempting to want top talent to feel they are special, it’s rarely helpful if they start to act like it. If you want your high potentials to have productive careers then they need to learn how to get along with others, as well as get ahead in their jobs. That means ensuring they get feedback to understand the impact they have on colleagues and providing coaching to help them adapt to it. The benefit of this is that it will help to strengthen the relationships they form at work, boosting their sense of belonging.
  • Challenge them in the right way. Many high potentials are given special assignments to stretch them into new areas. This can be a great way to engage them with impactful and challenging projects. However, there is some nuance to this and research shows that while some work demands actually help to boost motivation and focus (challenges - like complex problem solving or tight deadlines), others are draining and exhausting no matter what (barriers to performance - like interpersonal conflict or highly ambiguous goals, leading to uncertainty). In a recent survey, many high potentials also said they feel significant additional pressure to get things right more often. We should remember that burnout and exhaustion is a substantial risk for high potential employees who ambitiously pursue the extra projects that they are given, while at the same time being exposed to the watchful eye of senior leaders who are constantly judging their performance. Ensuring that development programs and projects are built around the balance of resources and demands facing the participants is an important part of keeping them engaged. And remember, just because someone is able to handle a tremendous amount of pressure, that doesn’t mean they are always a good fit for more senior roles – particularly if they need to be able to empathize with overwhelmed subordinates.
  • Meaning and purpose. Although it has become rather cliché to talk about the importance of meaning and impact in the workplace, there should be no doubt that it makes a difference. People will often use the pursuit of higher-level purpose or vision to buffer against the shorter-term impact of stressful or boring work on their motivation. So, while many high potential programs might emphasize the increased influence, development, and even reward that high potentials have access to, it’s important that a clear connection is also made to achieving a broader career impact and purpose. This means ensuring that leaders and managers understand that their role in developing top talent isn’t only to talk to them about their performance, but also to help them think through their development toward their broader career goals.

While the additional investment that high potential employees receive is a privilege, the market for talented individuals means that competition is fierce. Helping high potentials to design their careers in a way that brings stronger impact, rewarding challenges, and better relationships can help boost engagement and retention.

To learn more about how the personality of high potential employees influences engagement of team members, check out The Engaging Leader.

Lewis Garrad, a chartered organizational psychologist, is the Growth Markets leader at Mercer|Sirota. He specializes in the design and deployment of employee attitude research programs, feedback interventions, and talent strategy. Follow him on Twitter.

Topics: leadership, high potential leaders, talent management, engagement, high potential, high potential employees, high potentials, high potential program, talent

Potential Is Not Performance

Posted by Hogan Assessments on Wed, Jan 18, 2017

Identifying and developing high potentials — employees ready to take the leadership reins when someone gets promoted, steps down, or gets fired — is the single greatest talent management challenge organizations face today. The problem is, most organizations are really, really bad at it. Practitioners rate themselves as effective at identifying high potentials only about 50% of the time. That means many high-potential identification systems in place today could achieve the same level of accuracy by flipping a coin.

If your organization is like most, its high-potential identification program focuses — sometimes exclusively — on current performance. A recent survey found 74% of companies identify high-potential employees based on performance appraisals, and 68.5% based on recommendations from management. A separate study by Corporate Research Forum estimated that 73% of organizations currently identifying high potentials using one single data point — a rating or nomination by the individual’s direct supervisor.

“This is problematic for two reasons,” Hogan CEO Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic wrote in a post for Forbes. “First, organizations are not very good at measuring performance (once you eliminate subjective ratings, there are very few reliable metrics left). Second, even when they measure performance well, many top performers will fail to perform well at the next level.”

Performance measures tend to be subjective and biased by politics. Performance appraisals often reflect how much supervisors like their employees, and over-inflate ratings of actual job performance. As a result, individuals designated as high performers are often actually the best politicians, or what we call emergent leaders — the people who are great at building relationships, exerting social influence, and standing out enough to get ahead. The problem is that the qualities it takes to climb the corporate ladder aren’t enough to be effective as a leader.

Second, organizations tend to overestimate current performance as a predictor of future potential. The idea of leaning on performance reviews is that the best predictor of future performance is past performance. But as ClearCompany Co-founder Andre Lavoie points out in an article on Entrepreneur, although all high-potential employees are high performers, not all high-performing employees are high potentials. Research shows that only 30% of current high performers are actually high-potential employees, and most employees (more than 90%) would have trouble at the next level.

“When you transition employees from individual contributors to managers, or from managers to leaders, the pivotal qualities or competencies that drive high performance change,” Chamorro-Premuzic wrote. “Furthermore, many strong individual contributors are not even interested in managing or leading others, preferring instead to focus on independent problem-solving or being a team-player. The result is a paradoxical system that removes people from a job they are rather good at, and re-positions them in a role they are neither able nor willing to do.”

At the very least, wrongly designating a high performer as a high potential means you lose an excellent individual contributor. More than half of high-potential employees drop out of development programs or leave their employer within five years, and studies estimate losing a high-potential employee costs the organization 3.5 times his or her annual compensation.

At worst, promoting the wrong people can cause major engagement problems within your organization. Leadership directly impacts employee engagement. Good leadership creates engaged employees; bad leadership leaves employees alienated and demoralized. Engaged employees are energized, proud, enthusiastic, and have positive attitudes at work. Companies whose employees are engaged show higher returns on assets, are more profitable, and yield nearly twice the value to their shareholders compared to companies characterized by low employee engagement. Disengagement, on the other hand, results in an estimated $550 billion in lost productivity in the U.S. each year.

Put simply, performance is what you do. Potential is what you could do. Until organizations learn to differentiate between the two, it’s unlikely their success identifying high potential individuals will improve.

Want to know more about how to tell potential from performance? Check out our ebook, The Politics of Potential.

Topics: high potential leaders, performance, high potential, high potential employees, high potentials, high potential program, talent

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