Engaging High Potential Employees – It’s Not As Simple As It Sounds

Lewis Garrad

Originally posted on the Hogan Assessments Blog on January 25, 2017

Coaching 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 helps 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.

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.

 

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