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

HR’s Business Function

Posted by Natalie O'Neal on Fri, Jan 31, 2014

describe the imageWith technology and organizations more advanced and complex than they’ve ever been, HR is struggling to keep up the good fight. “Unfortunately, what we see is HR systems developed ad-hoc; one set of tools for selection, another for middle managers, and another for high-level leadership development, and none of those systems communicate,” said Ryan Ross, vice president of Global Alliances at Hogan.

The problem is that this information often comes from divergent systems, and therefore lacks context or common language. If HR wants to act strategically, it needs to consolidate those systems so that data can be viewed in context. The key to getting quality people in all levels of an organization is to “put a system in place that stays relevant throughout the entire employee lifecycle,” said Ross.

Check out the 4 other issues HR is running up against in our ebook How to Conquer the 5 Things Keeping HR up at Night.

Topics: talent management

What’s Keeping HR up at Night?

Posted by Natalie O'Neal on Tue, Jan 21, 2014

5 Things EbookAs Big Data and technology swoop in to change the face of HR forever, it’s no wonder HR practitioners are having a few nightmares about their future. We’ve identified 5 problem children for the HR industry this year:

1)     Recruiting – Every time a new employee fails (which is, according to our research, half of them), the cost to the employer is more than 150% of the candidate’s salary.

2)     Retaining Talent – Voluntary turnover is on the rise. A survey by Future Workplace showed that 91% of Millennials expected to stay at a job for fewer than three years.

3)     Millennials – A survey of more than 37,000 college students showed that narcissistic personality traits rose as fast as obesity rates from the 1980s to the present. That’s a lot of ego for one entry-level employee.

4)     Succession Planning – According to a SilkRoad survey, only 38 percent of companies are prepared for the sudden retirement of a top executive.

5)     HR Business Function – Fifty-three percent of SilkRoad’s survey respondents were most concerned about developing an HR organization that acts strategically rather than tactically.

But wait, there’s hope! Find out how to keep HR nightmares at bay in our ebook, How to Conquer the 5 Things Keeping HR up at Night.

Topics: talent management

The Generational Workforce of the Future

Posted by Jackie VanBroekhoven on Mon, Jun 18, 2012

workforceWhile participating at the Human Resource People & Strategy conference in New York last month, I attended a session on generational differences in the workplace of the future. The presenter, Jeanne Meister, presented on the unique conditions that the workplace of the near future will create: Specifically, by 2020 there will be five generations working together in the U.S. economy. Due to the anticipated delayed retirement of our aging workforce, by 2020 the US will see Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, Generation X, Generation Y, and Generation Z attempting to peacefully coexist in the same workforce.

As a warm-up exercise, presenter Jeanne Meister asked a real-time poll question to see the generational spread of her audience. The poll question used audience response technology that prompted respondents to answer the question by texting their answers. A bar chart appeared up on the projector with a column for each of the five generations that updated audience responses in real time. We watched as the Generation Y bar spiked rapidly, towering over the rest. Within 15 seconds, Generation X had dwarfed Y on the chart and the Baby Boomers took the rightful lead soon after. Several minutes later, Jeanne was carrying on with her presentation as the Traditionalists bar was still slowly growing on the chart behind her as they figured out how to enter their responses via text.

This was a well-timed example of some of the differences that exist between the generations. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that Millennials will overtake the majority representation in the workforce by 2015. This statistic seemed to grip the room with intense fear of the hyper-connected, over-entitled twenty-somethings getting ready to take their offices and boardrooms by storm. The well-publicized stereotypes for Millennials include attention-seeking, impatience, and needing constant, immediate feedback.

However Jeanne communicated a message of optimism rather than fear: she emphasized the need to understand each generation more fully to better attract, recruit, and retain multi-generational talent. Not just in terms of actively creating an organizational culture that will be attractive for younger generations, but also in terms of understanding what it will take to keep all five generations engaged and on board in tomorrow’s organizations. Although Millennials are currently in the spotlight, I agree with Jeanne that it will be crucial to fully understand differences between all of the generations in terms of how they think, what they want/value, and what skills gaps exist between them.

Although there is much debate and disagreement on what criteria delineates each generation, the loose definitions below will serve our purposes:

Generation Nickname Born During Stereotypically Known For: Est. % in 2020 Workforce
Traditionalists The Silent Generation
The Greatest Generation
1925 to 1945 Loyalty, respect for authority, discipline, adherence to rules 1%
Baby Boomers The Post-War Generation 1946 to 1964 Optimism, innovation, achievement, individualism 22%
Generation X Gen X 1965 to 1980 Autonomy, productivity, recognition, adaptability 20%
Generation Y Millennials 1981 to 2000 Self-expression, comfort w/ change, resilience, global awareness, connected 50%
Generation Z Net Generation
Digital Natives
2000 & after Technologically savvy, fast-paced, socially connected, creative, collaboration 7%

As we consider the impact of the future generational landscape, we often talk in terms of personality descriptors and other character-based labels, such as confident, entitled, and social. Research indicates that while personal values may differ based on age, culture, and other demographics, personality is partially genetic and is an individual-level phenomenon. Attempts to personify an entire generation based on behaviors from a small sampling are problematic for more than one reason. Characterizing generations based on defining events (i.e., the great depression), expectations (i.e., immediacy vs. delayed gratification), and environmental factors (i.e., technology/innovation) makes much more sense. It should not be surprising that the generation that suffered through the depression might have a different outlook than the generation that put the first man on the moon. Nor should it shock us that the generation that is currently being brought up on the Internet and technology consumes information differently than the generation brought up on books and newspapers.

It seems there would be more to learn about how these people can work effectively together, rather than focusing solely on the differences or making sweeping statements about how they are similar or distinct.

Topics: employee selection, talent management

3 Steps to Better Hiring

Posted by Jocelyn Hays on Mon, Jun 04, 2012

istock 000000989612xsmallIn his recent Wall Street Journal article, “Software Raises Bar for Hiring,” David Wessel raises some interesting talent acquisition questions: As candidate pools have grown exponentially in the struggling economy and screening processes have become more efficient and cost-effective through the use of various software solutions, have organizations become overly stringent in their job requirements? Are employers cutting training programs, and therefore costs, based on the idea that they will be able to find someone in the vast pool of available workers who have the skills they require?

It seems that many organizations make the mistake of setting forth myriad requirements in their job requisitions, which are then programmed into software solutions used to screen out candidates early in the selection process. As a result the organization fails to find anyone for the job. At the same time, unemployed workers apply to positions for which they believe they are well qualified only to find themselves dropped from the selection process based solely on an initial application or resume submission. In the end frustration abounds – organizations are frustrated by the lack of “qualified” talent, and job seekers are frustrated by organizations that eliminate them from the selection process based solely on an initial screen.

Individual organizations can take steps to increase the likelihood of finding the right person for the job, regardless of what that job might be.

1. Carefully define job requirements

If your organization is struggling to find qualified candidates, make sure you are evaluating the must-haves that an individual needs to be successful in the job. You might find that you have been focusing on nice-to-haves (additional years of experience, advanced degrees for jobs that don’t require them) that do not truly differentiate high and low performance on the job. 

2. Focus on competencies, not experience

It is also important to consider what the employee needs day one on the job. Instead of looking for someone who has performed the exact same type of work before, focus on finding a candidate with the core competencies (knowledge, skills, abilities, and traits) required to be successful and supplement that talent with organization or job-specific training and education.

3. Take a whole employee life cycle approach

Organizations would also be wise to take a whole employee life cycle approach that includes recruitment, selection, development and retention. In some fields, such as engineering and IT, numerous opportunities are available to experienced workers, and organizations may find it hard to hold onto strong talent. When recruiting and hiring employees, ensure that the candidates you select are a good fit not just for a particular job, but also for your overall culture and work environment. Once employees are on the job, take steps to contribute to their professional development and keep them engaged. Depending on your structure this may include identifying high potentials to include in succession planning efforts, but don’t overlook middle-of-the-road performers who are your organization’s backbone – make sure they have opportunities to grow and develop their skills.  

Talent acquisition and management are complex processes, but careful planning at each step will help your organization hire and retain the right talent. Using selection techniques that identify candidates with the potential for success and focusing on onboarding, development, and engagement post-hire will go a long way towards ending employers’ and job seekers’ frustration.

Topics: employee selection, hiring, talent management, unemployment, talent acquisition

Motivating Employees in Today's Economy: A Lesson from the Past

Posted by Ashley Palmer on Tue, Aug 16, 2011

Faced with the threat of a double-dip recession, many U.S. companies, rather than re-expanding their diminished workforces, are expecting more from their employees for less pay. These circumstances put a strain on worker satisfaction; a survey by First Command Financial Services Inc. found that 24% of respondents were unhappy with their job and 39% were actively looking for a new employment. Talent Management magazine quoted Scott Spiker, First Command CEO, as saying, “This rising discontent in the middle-class workforce is clearly being fueled by the continuing economic turmoil.”

Reduced bonuses and extended work weeks are sure to diminish morale. So what can organizations do to motivate and retain their talent given today’s economic constraints? A look back into the field of psychology may provide the answer.

Frederick Herzberg, a well-known psychologist and business management guru, was one of the first to propose theories of workplace motivation in the 1960s. He asserted that “the only way to motivate employees is to give them interesting jobs.”

Although Herzberg’s theory is quite absolute, the concept is worth entertaining. Job enrichment, a less expensive and arguably more effective way of intrinsically motivating workers compared to traditional methods (e.g., bonuses, promotions), involves:

• Providing employees with challenging and interesting work so they can use and develop a wide range of skills
• Empowering employees to make decisions about their work
• Allowing employees to work on projects from start to finish
• Delivering accurate, timely, and constructive feedback to let workers know how they’re doing
• Letting employees know how their work relates to the organization’s overall strategy

Herzberg and other psychologists found that when organizations enriched jobs, employees became motivated, satisfied, and engaged by their work and were less likely to leave. For example, a leading technology company wanted to boost their sales team’s morale and retention rate. Instead of increasing pay, they assigned each sales representative a geographic area so that he/she could develop long-term relationships with clients. Also, they gave the sales reps the authority to offer discounts and set their own work hours. These initiatives led to happier employees and a 19% increase in sales.

Although financial compensation is important, it isn’t the only thing that matters when it comes to satisfaction in the workplace. A recent Talent Management magazine article reported that a PDI Ninth House survey found that only 10% of surveyed leaders cited compensation and advancement opportunities as essential motivators within their jobs. Instead, leaders claimed that key motivators included having stimulating and challenging work and an organizational mission they can support. These results echo Herzberg’s job enrichment theory.

Although traditional motivators can lead to contentment and short-lived happiness, job enrichment can lead to engagement, pride, and growth. Given today’s turbulent environment, organizations can use these lessons from the past to motivate and retain top talent.

Topics: talent management, employee engagement, job satisfaction

There is no "I" in TALENT?

Posted by Jackie VanBroekhoven on Thu, Jul 14, 2011

A virtual debate in the business blogosphere has been growing more and more heated over the past several weeks and months.  It appears the debate began with a May 17th New York Times article that quoted Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s illustrious CEO, as saying, “Someone who is exceptional in their role is not just a little better than someone who is pretty good. They are 100 times better.”  Although difficult to follow at first, Zuckerberg’s argument is that a brilliant individual is 100 times more valuable than a mediocre team.  His statement reflects a new strategy in the War on Talent that many have also begun to adopt.  According to the Times article, many of the giants in Silicon Valley are so desperate for fresh talent they have resorted to purchasing entire companies simply to acquire the gifted entrepreneurs, engineers, and programmers that created and comprise them.  This new practice has been dubbed “acqhiring,” and is becoming more common in industries where the competition for talent is fierce and requires more benefits, dazzling incentives, and creative ways to attract the best and brightest.

Zuckerberg’s thoughts are not shared by all, however.  In a rebuttal of sorts, HBR blogger Bill Taylor posted a piece of his mind called Great People Are Overrated on June 20th, in which he questions the practice of placing all of the eggs in a single, metaphorical basket.  Taylor warns his readers about the dangers of putting too much emphasis on “star players” and underestimating the power of an effective team.  In simpler terms, the quarterback cannot win the game alone, but the entire second string playing as a team may have a fighting chance; or at least they would in a heartwarming Hollywood blockbuster.  In our desperation to retain top talent, are those of us in talent management becoming overly focused on star-power and losing sight of what actually drives performance?  Taylor also points out that most talent decisions would not realistically involve a choice between one exceptional person and 100 mediocre people.  However, if forced to make the choice what would you decide?

Adding to the web debate is fellow HBR blogger Jeff Stibel, CEO of Dun & Bradstreet Credibility Corp.  Stibel responded directly to Taylor on June 27th with his blog, Why a Great Individual Is Better Than a Good Team.  He not only agrees with Zuckerberg, but takes it one step further by saying that a great individual is worth an infinite number of average people.  Why?  Stibel claims that our cognitive functioning breaks down in group settings, and that the value of an individual contributor declines with each additional team member working on a single idea or project.  He likens his argument to the economic law of diminishing returns, or – more simply put – too many cooks in the kitchen will spoil the broth.

Evaluating both sides of this argument from a psychologist’s perspective, I propose another point of view.  As with all matters involving human beings, we cannot place too much or too little emphasis on the importance of individual differences in our talent management philosophy.  The dynamics of human interaction, team performance, and individual effectiveness are far too complex to be reduced to sports metaphors or culinary idioms.  It is very easy to cull up images of the brilliant artist, boy genius, or start-up entrepreneur who works best as a “lone wolf,” locked up in an office or studio with nothing more than their ideas and their IQ points.  For these individuals, perhaps it is possible to claim that an individual is better than a team.  These salient examples, however intriguing they are, do not define the global workforce or talent pool that we are currently facing.  Today’s effective organizations need dreamers and doers, leaders and team players, and generally rely on the cooperation and coordination of many. 

Jeff Stibel’s argument is somewhat lost on me for a few reasons.  First, individual differences matter.  For every person who works better alone, there is at least one person who thrives on social interaction, gains energy from working in teams, and feels motivated by opportunities to collaborate.  Behind every brilliant program or idea developed by a software genius is a person or team who knows how to actually market the product, balance the books, manage the necessary resources, etc.  Second, organizational performance cannot be determined by calculating the arithmetic sum of each individual contributor’s brilliance, ability, or creativity.  Rather, organizational performance is determined by the extent to which individuals can effectively perform together as a team.  Finally, taking into account individual differences and team dynamics, success will also depend on the quality of leadership, which ideally provides a compelling vision, adequate resources, and the strategic direction necessary to maximize the talent within an organization.

The debate rages on – see Taylor’s Great People Are Overrated (Part II).  However, it seems that all parties agree that the War on Talent is a reality, and that continued organizational success depends on the ability to attract, retain, and perhaps even “acqhire” top talent.  My opinion diverges from the debate based on a belief that neither the individual nor the team is sufficient to guarantee organizational success.  A much more complex formula governs the outcomes we care about in today’s talent landscape and informs where we decide to funnel our resources.  The final statement in Stibel’s blog is one I absolutely agree with: “One decision is easy: find the best people and empower them to do great things.” 

Topics: leadership, talent management, organizational success, team

Pyramid of Success and Personality

Posted by Adam Vassar on Wed, Nov 10, 2010

June 4th, 2010 marked the passing of basketball coaching legend John Wooden. As many people are aware, Wooden was known as the “Wizard of Westwood” for his unmatched success as coach of the UCLA men’s basketball team, leading them to a record 88 consecutive victories and 10 national championships among other accomplishments. What is less widely publicized is the strategy that Wooden designed and deployed in order to recruit, assess, select, develop, and mentor his players into successful individuals on and off the court. This aspect of the coach’s legend interestingly establishes him as not only an innovator in the sport of basketball, but also a pioneer in the realm of talent management.

Like the successful talent managers of today’s organizations, Wooden realized that neither choosing players for his team nor growing their skills could be accomplished simply based on his own intuition and instinct. Wooden, unwittingly taking a move from the yet to be written I/O psychologist playbook, created a measurement model for identifying high potential players that exhibited the competencies required to succeed in his program. In 1948 (16 years before winning his first national title), he created what came to be known as the “Pyramid of Success.” Those of us in human capital selection and leadership development circles will quickly recognize this pyramid includes very similar content as to what we commonly see today in organizational competency models. Wooden’s pyramid included 15 primary competencies (i.e., the building blocks) and 10 secondary competencies (i.e., the mortar).

One revelation upon examining this pyramid is the clear presence of personality as the foundational component of the model. Wooden envisioned the theoretical pyramid to be like that of an actual pyramid where the foundation must first be established and is paramount to the fidelity and stability of the entire structure. In this case, the first two levels serving as the foundation consisted of the following building blocks: Industriousness, Friendship, Loyalty, Cooperation, Enthusiasm, Self-Control, Alertness, Initiative, and Intentness. These 9 competencies can be easily mapped to the 7 scales of the Hogan Personality Inventory (HPI).
Industriousness and Loyalty (e.g., hard work, careful planning, and maintaining commitments) link clearly to what we refer to in Hogan language as Prudence. Friendship, Cooperation, and Enthusiasm are included in the pyramid to embody mutual respect, collaborative social interactions, and demonstrating energy and joy when working with others. These same behaviors can be found in the Interpersonal Sensitivity and Sociability Hogan personality scales. What we at Hogan define as Ambition is represented in Wooden’s concepts of Initiative and Intentness that are characterized as making independent decisions, not fearing failure, and persisting for goal achievement. Those familiar with the HPI would likely look at the pyramid and recognize Wooden’s definition of Self-Control as representing the Adjustment scale. In the Self-Control building block, the coach discusses concepts such as mastery of emotions and avoiding peaks and valleys in one’s temperament. Finally, the Hogan scales of Inquisitive and Learning Approach are akin to what UCLA basketball alumni would remember of Coach Wooden’s Alertness concept for staying open-minded and being eager to learn and improve.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have talent such as the likes of Lew Alcindor (later known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and Bill Walton on your team if you want to reach the pinnacle of success in your particular field. However, whether it’s on the basketball court or in the boardroom, countless examples exist where the team with the greatest raw talent doesn’t win. The prediction of success begins with the establishment of an appropriate measurement model of critical competencies followed by the systematic assessment of those competencies to select and develop talent. Time and time again, whether it is Wooden’s methodology or the desired competencies of today’s leading companies, personality continues to serve as the cornerstone to support practitioners in unlocking their own pyramids of success.

Topics: HPI, Hogan Personality Inventory, leadership, talent management

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