Are your high potential employees becoming disengaged and jumping ship?  In his article, “The Care and Feeding of High-Potential Employees” in the August issue of HR Magazine, Robert Grossman discusses ways employers can nurture their high potential employees.  It boils down to good communication and aligning your high potential employees’ personal and professional goals with the needs of the organization.

Grossman cites, “In 2010, the Corporate Leadership Council surveyed 880 high-potential employees.  More than 25 percent said they planned to change jobs within the next 12 months.  Among the dissatisfied, 64 percent said their current employment experiences are having little impact on their development.  Engagement levels, measured by assessing levels of passion and discretionary effort, declined 30 percent from 2009 to 2010.  From employers’ perspective, the performance of those who are sticking around is similarly troubling.  More than half of the executives surveyed said their organizations are ineffective at managing and retaining top talent.  They said 40 percent of internal job moves made by high-potentials end in failure and fewer than 15 percent of their direct reports are ready for immediate transition to subsequent roles.”

First, researchers see a huge divide between what employers think motivates high-potentials and what actually motivates them. Employers cite lists of what “we’ve given them,” including outstanding remuneration, to demonstrate the strengths of their programs. But attractive pay and benefits are on a high-potential’s ” ‘I’m given’ list, meaning he or she can replicate them elsewhere fairly easily,” says Roland Smith, lead researcher at the Center for Creative Leadership in Colorado Springs, Colo. “What they’re looking for instead are the things that truly differentiate employers. These include opportunities to more directly influence and direct their careers and more-challenging assignments with real risks and rewards.”

It often takes more than compensation, stock and options to retain people, says Raoul Buron, vice president and chief learning officer at Prudential Financial in Newark, N.J. “If I know my career is being managed, that I will be regularly reviewed and given options in choosing my next move, it makes a big difference,” he explains.

Second, high-potentials need smarts and experience to thrive, but ability and seasoning are only part of the recipe. “We know from our benchmarking studies that high-potentials don’t fail because they lack ability,” says Jean Martin, executive director of the Corporate Leadership Council. “Most don’t succeed because they are not engaged and because the assignment they’re in is not what they want.”

Grossman offers 14 strategies to engage and retain your high potential employees:

Tell them they’re special. Center for Creative Leadership research reveals that only about 40 percent of employers formally tell high-potentials of their status. A second study from the center suggests that those who fail to do so pay a steep price in attrition. Of the high-potentials who were not formally told of their status, 33 percent were looking for another job. Of the high-potentials who were told they were special, only 14 percent were looking.

Align individual and company needs during a consultative process. High-potentials want to be involved in planning their development, not dictated to. “It’s a continuous journey to match organization needs with personal aspirations,” says Lauris Woolford, executive vice president of organization development and planning at the Cincinnati bank.

Delegate real responsibility. Research shows that high-potentials thrive when they’re truly accountable for something. But employers are often reluctant to give them the reins. “When they get the more significant assignments, they’re being told what to do rather than being assigned to direct or co-direct,” Roland Smith says. “Within reason, you have to be prepared to let them make mistakes.”

Be flexible. Inflexible assignments, especially those that require relocation when people have young children and employed spouses, can be morale busters or worse. Finding creative solutions that respect lifestyle needs and still provide seasoning for advancement can differentiate an employer.

Show them they matter. The single biggest factor in retention is whether people feel valued, says Michael Critelli, current CEO of Dossia in Cambridge, Mass.  “I spent a lot of time in one-on-ones with people at all levels,” recalls Critelli, who has experience as an HR leader.  “Hug your high-potentials because if you don’t, someone else will,” Lauris Woolford advises. “Make them know that you would not want to run your business without them.”

Tap effective mentors. Who the mentor or coach is makes a difference. High-potentials want access to people in the hierarchy that they respect.  Finding leaders who can step into the mentoring role can be challenging. “C-suite executives are good at challenging people and assessing them, but not always as good at supporting them,” Roland Smith says. “They may find it hard to invest the relational time that people want.”

Foster visibility. Employers insist that substantive exposure to top decision-makers—not just face time with them—is essential. Boards of directors should “get out to remote facilities to see people in their native settings,” says Critelli.  “Boards should go somewhere away from headquarters at least once a year so members can see promising people below the top tier in action.”

Make learning and advancement seem never-ending.  By establishing talent or “acceleration” pools, employers can identify and isolate high-potentials for special treatment in the earlier phases of their careers without earmarking them for one particular job or position. Acceleration pools offer flexibility, guarantee more candidates for jobs that open up and enhance retention. In smaller organizations, HR leaders may find it more difficult to produce a steady stream of learning opportunities. One option: Encourage high-potentials to master skills and gain transferable experience outside of work.

Focus on developing the attributes leaders are bound to need. High-potentials know what they want from a development program. Keep their desires in balance with company objectives. “Target the competencies that will enhance your organization,” advises Sandi Edwards, senior vice president of AMA Enterprise.

Give managers assessment tools they need and will use for selection. Even with tools in place, talent management and succession planning often falter because managers do not have comprehensive systems for their high-potential programs. One area that suffers from lack of attention in many companies, for example, is the selection process.

Use a systems approach. A systems approach does not require sophisticated software. Yet creating a database of employees’ skills is only part of the process.  No matter how automated the system is, the idea is to control the whole process from profiling and employee feedback to standardizing, where possible, selection processes and criteria for judging performance.

Put assessment to the transparency test. Morale suffers when employees say the selection process is unfair or built around favoritism.

Part on friendly terms. Inevitably, some high-potentials will depart, making critics question the investment in talent now benefiting others.  Part on good terms, however. “We’re good at keeping someone in our plans even when they leave,” Prudential’s Buron says. “We’re always trolling in the market.  We may go back out and recruit that same person later.”

Get buy-in from top leaders. Unless leaders agree to the financial investment and make a personal commitment to the initiative, HR professionals’ efforts are destined to end in frustration.

Offer What You Can Afford.  Weigh carefully whether your company can afford to pay the total rewards that high-potentials want, given all other competing demands.


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