More than half of high potential employees drop out of their programs within the first five years. Yet, high potentials are seen as twice as valuable to their organization than non-high potentials, according to a report from CEB.
Developing and retaining high potentials is more crucial—and more challenging—than ever. Thus, there’s the risk of burnout, if leaders don’t strike the right balance between stretching and overwhelming their star performers. Also, thanks to shifting workforce norms, it’s harder than it once was to inspire long-term loyalty to one organization. Then there’s the issue of identifying HiPos in the first place, and distinguishing between high-potential and high-performing candidates.
Dana Byrd is well-versed in the challenges that can arise when cultivating leaders within this elite group. Byrd is a seasoned leadership facilitator for Experience to Lead and has worked extensively with high potential cohorts. She specializes in coaching senior executives, as well as high potentials who are being groomed for C-suite positions. She facilitates programs that immerse people in inspiring stories and key leadership moments from history.
Dana shares valuable advice below for leaders on developing and retaining high potential talent. In particular, from giving them visibility in the organization to avoiding burnout, and more.
1. Distinguish between high-potential and high-performing employees
Of course, the first step in developing high potentials is identifying them in the first place. And “high potential” should not be confused with “high performing.”
“Some people are high-performing because they’re exactly where they need to be,” Byrd says. “They’re in their wheelhouse and they’re happy there.”
On the other hand, high potential employees are eager to advance and take on new responsibilities.
“They master things quickly and have an appetite for more. And more often than not, they have an ambitious long-term plan,” Byrd says. “They have basically all of the legs of the stool … the ‘KSAOs’ or knowledge and technical skills, but also interpersonal strengths, strategic perspective, and drive to make things happen.”
2. Have open discussions about what they want
High potentials are usually highly driven people. However, they don’t all have the same needs and desires when it comes to the trajectory of their development. Leaders should have ongoing, candid conversations with high potential employees about how they envision their own growth within the organization.
“When people feel like they’re understood and that their point of view and desires are taken into consideration, that has a lot of motivational impact,” Byrd says.
Also, have transparent discussions with high potentials about why you think certain development programs would be beneficial for them.
“Sometimes it can feel like (development) programs are done to them,” Byrd says, “or they may be unclear on what they’re expected to take away from them. Framing up their experiences in advance helps them see the personal ROI in it and be more energized and engaged by them.”
3. Give them tools to develop awareness of their strengths and blind spots
Many people can point out gaps in their own technical knowledge. But when it comes to interpersonal skills, people often have a harder time identifying strengths and weaknesses.
“People’s blind spots tend to be more interpersonal in nature,” Byrd says. “How are you perceived by the executive team? How do your peers see you? … Are you ready to show up in the kind of way that is expected of executives in terms of polish or gravitas? … Those are often some stretch factors for high potentials.”
Assessments and coaching can be an effective way to “hold up a mirror” to high potentials’ interpersonal impact, Byrd says.
4. Connect them with a mentor
High potentials can benefit from having a mentor, or mentors, inside or outside the organization.
Connect them with “people who have been there and understand the landscape, people who can lend perspective and help situate their current experiences in the bigger picture,” Byrd says. “When you’re continually navigating new experiences, having someone that you can go to for advice or perspective can be enormously beneficial.
“It’s a special type of professional relationship because you don’t owe them anything really, and they’re not necessarily looking at you in an evaluative fashion.”
5. Encourage senior executives to participate directly in their development
In her experience working with high potentials, Byrd has seen that many are eager for direct feedback from senior executives.
“They’re really eager for feedback. Ideally they already understand their boss’ perspective because they’ve been having these conversations. But they don’t want to know what HR thinks of them. They want to know, ‘The people who are my potential peers, or the other people who are looking at me to see if I have what it takes, what do they think of me? What gaps do they see? What do I need to be able to bring to the table?’”
She adds that an experiential learning program can help foster alignment between high potentials and members of the senior executive team. A shared experience can create an opportunity for high potentials to gain greater insight and appreciation into what matters most to the senior team and how they look at issues facing the company.
6. Give them visibility
Give high potentials visibility within the organization by involving them in committees and task forces, and giving them other opportunities to prove themselves.
“Your ability to rise the ranks, if you will—though that concept is a little outdated—is predicated on who knows you,” Byrd says. “Giving people an opportunity to interact with influential others … gives them a chance to show what they’re made of, and it also creates an avenue for forging relationships.”
This may mean giving people stretch assignments.
“Say you give someone the chance to present to the board. This gives them visibility, but it also gives you a chance to see where there may be growth needs, because it can also be a stretch for them in terms of demonstrating executive presence and presentation skills or showing a broad knowledge and strategic perspective of business issues,” Byrd says.
7. Allow people to fail, carefully
Of course, giving people visibility and challenging them with stretch assignments comes with some risks. What if they’re not really ready?
“The key here is being able to gauge their readiness well and having the insight to calibrate to the individual,” Byrd says. “Some people are ready but need encouragement to get out of their high-performing zone into the learning zone. Other people are eager to try but not necessarily ready and you don’t want to risk throwing them in the deep end to watch them drown.”
People need room and permission to take risks and fail. Otherwise, they will not grow.
“If you give someone an opportunity to work on something that’s a little bit out of their comfort zone and … they don’t exactly nail it, you can’t knock them for it, otherwise they’re going to keep their toes safely behind the line,” Byrd says. “You need to focus on helping them carry the learning forward.”
8. Avoid burnout
According to a 2017 study from Kronos and Future Workplace, 95 percent of HR leaders said that burnout affects employee retention. Employee burnout is a risk across the org chart, but high potentials can be especially susceptible because they are “often very high achieving, competitive, and conscientious.”
“They’re going to do whatever you ask them to do, maybe even deliver beyond your expectations,” Byrd says. “You have to be careful with these types of people … you risk really just running them thin. They have high competence and considerable confidence and they don’t want to say no.”
This ties back to the importance of having ongoing, mutually candid conversations about their development. Hence, high potentials should feel comfortable communicating when they are feeling not just challenged, but overwhelmed.
9. Invest in people to cultivate a sense of long-term loyalty
High potential employees want to feel like their organization cares about their long-term development, not just their ability to deliver results.
“Especially in today’s world and economy, (people) are not even expecting to stay in one organization for the long haul,” Byrd says. “The sense of allegiance to one’s organization is certainly not what it was in our parents’ generation … Increasingly, I think people really want to be at a place that they feel values them and communicates that in demonstrable ways. We’re not just squeezing you dry or giving you just enough for you not to leave; we’re investing in you for your personal benefit as well our own.”
She points to the classic saying about employee development: What if we invest in our people and they leave? … But what if we don’t, and they stay?
“It’s always worth it to invest in your people,” she says. “People are more reticent to leave places where they know they matter. The people who jump ship are less likely to have emotional and interpersonal ties to the organization, and these ties are strengthened when you show people their contributions matter to others and where they have growth opportunities.”
10. Have conversations about what is possible for them, and when
High potentials often have ambitious career goals and often want more clarity on the direction and timing of their path.
“People ask themselves, ‘I know I’m in this high potential group, and that’s great – but what does that mean in terms of what and when my next steps might be?’ …You can’t usually guarantee an exact timeline for a particular role. But you can bet this group certainly is thinking about where they want to be in the next three to five years. ”
That’s why it’s important for managers to have frank conversations about what people can realistically expect as their development progresses.
“Helping them see the more incremental progress in addition to the big leaps is helpful here. The person’s boss should be the one spearheading those conversations,” Byrd says. “And, ideally, they’re happening in an ongoing fashion.”
Dana Byrd is one of our leadership facilitators for Brace for Impact, which delves into the leadership lessons from the famous ‘Miracle on the Hudson’ airplane landing. Integrated into this program are Hogan leadership assessments. From these assessments, participants gain greater insight into the strengths and blind spots they bring with them into challenging situations.