Talent Development

Developing and Retaining High Potential Talent

By Nicole BeckermanJanuary 5, 2017

A mere 15% of organizations believe they have enough qualified successors for key positions. Having a succession plan featuring high potential talent is crucial to staying competitive, with organizations vying constantly to attract the best people. Some organizations even try to begin identifying and grooming high potential employees from their pool of incoming entry-level staff. Yet working with high potential employees doesn’t end when they accept a job offer. The methods to identify and engage high potential workers are changing. Organizations are forming a better idea of what will keep them around, and are finding there must in fact be a larger culture of collaboration and mentorship to help them truly excel.

Finding Potential Stars

While recruiting high potential talent is always on the agenda for large firms, it requires a great level of precision to assess an incoming candidate across the various relevant criteria. For example, it is difficult to ascertain if a candidate is truly enthusiastic about collaborating to help others succeed or has exemplary passion for the company’s mission. Companies might do well to spend more time and energy on identifying those already within their ranks that could grow into star employees who take on greater responsibility. There is more volume and richness of information available about the people that work inside your organization, so it is easier to correctly identify the right people with exceptional potential.

It may be tempting to just have a catch-all system to grab the top 5% or so performers for a few consecutive years on their annual reviews and label them “high potential,” but Harvard Business Review calls this a misstep: “Most high performers are not, in fact, high potentials.” Doing well at one’s current job doesn’t mean a person has the inclination or capacity to be a future leader. The people who should be considered high potential are those who perform well but also learn quickly on the job, have personal alignment with the company vision and mission, and possess a genuine interest in growing their scope of work. Philosophical and motivational alignment might even be more important than a person’s technical skill set as that can be easily broadened with training.

Beyond factoring in performance, high potential identification systems should incorporate subjective information such as recommendations, nominations, behavioral interviews, etc. No matter what combination of metrics and subjective data are used to identify high potential employees, there should be transparency about criteria and absolute consistency. While transparency has been somewhat debated, the general consensus is that word will get out anyway, and being transparent will avoid demoralizing those not included in the group.

Developing High Potential Talent

Once high potential candidates are identified, the next step is creating a development program. Many methods are in use right now by various organizations, and most begin with a formal education program including self-directed and on-the-job learning. Per research, top companies “look for experiences that will both challenge and motivate people,” without completely overwhelming them.

Stretch assignments, short skills courses, and more visible responsibilities are all examples of tactics companies can use to develop their high potential talent. Longer-term strategies and training include more involved education programs (some companies even have essentially their own specialized business “schools” internally), foreign assignments, or rotational programs. Rotations in particular can be useful in readying candidates for more complex positions, as they will obtain an understanding of different business units, scopes of work, change initiatives, and so on. For example, Genentech offers different specific rotations for new graduates by department, with participants often spending a year in a field office and two rotations within a home office during which time they receive formal training, informal learning seminars, networking opportunities, mentoring, and so on. Many large organizations such as Intel, Boeing, GE, and Nestle use these types of programs to develop their high potential staff.

Mentoring is also paramount to the success and retention of high potential talent. We’ve noted before that mentoring is valued highly by standout young managers. This should not be surprising, considering that over 79% of Millennials view mentoring as crucial to their career success. Mentoring is not just about ladder climbing, but about knowledge sharing, visibility to leadership, and getting employees to the point where they can be more productive in less time. Studies show mentees earn more money, are more productive, get promoted more rapidly, and are more engaged. Perhaps most important to high potential retention, mentoring helps cement relationships inside the organization which increases the chances that employees will stay and work through any issues that arise rather than leaving.

Peer Mentoring and Collaborative Culture

The traditional model of executive-to-employee mentoring is still important, but other strategies are needed to keep people engaged and learning—especially high potential talent craving new, stimulating experiences. Younger employees may be able to teach the older generations a thing or two, while lateral colleagues can benefit from bouncing ideas off each other. An organization can create a more collaborative, inclusive culture over all by building mentorship into the company values, which is what KPMG does.

Peer mentoring specifically is on the rise, as Millennials are used to having more than one mentor, and engaging in reverse mentoring. 25% of large US companies have peer mentoring programs as opposed to 4-5% in 2007. Peer mentoring not only builds skills and offers fresh perspectives, but helps employees form bonds, share relevant institutional knowledge, and improve their communication skills. For peer mentoring to succeed, companies need to provide structure and training in collaborative, constructive communication. This may involve teaching employees how to organize an interaction towards a goal, focusing on the problem not the person, and being clear and non-judgmental in their language.

High potential employees may have unique challenges and aspirations which they feel more comfortable discussing with a peer, leading to authentic interactions and a more positive work experience. In addition, the communication skills they can build with their peers are essential to taking on larger roles and more reports. Peer mentoring also builds trust, which is essential for when these potential stars come together in high performance teams. In fact, peer mentorship interactions could be the catalyst by which those very teams are formed!

Overall, retention does not hinge overwhelmingly on compensation, but rather the employee experience and meaningful work. Retaining high potentials in particular means giving them the right environment to feel stimulated, engaged, and connected. Peer mentoring or support groups can give them the authentic connections to experience belonging, while a culture of collaboration will encourage them to band together in reaching new heights. Through culture, organizations can create an experience for high potentials where they feel valued, that their work has purpose, and they have an exciting future at that company. A positive work experience with strong interpersonal connections can make all the difference when it comes to retaining high potentials and enabling them to continue growing.

Nicole Beckerman

Nicole Beckerman

Writer

About the Author

Nicole Beckerman is a marketing consultant, writer, and clothing designer based in Los Angeles, CA. She holds an MBA from Mills College as a Goldman Sachs Scholar.

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