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High Potential Employees: Love ‘Em or They’ll Leave


I recently worked with an insurance executive and business owner who had a receptionist who demonstrated many high potential behaviors. Within six months he had a career development discussion with her and found that she was interested in doing the accounting for the company. He found her some training and transitioned her into the new position. Since then, she has taken to the new job and enjoys the challenges that it brings with it. If he hadn’t had recognized her potential, she probably would have moved on and he would have lost a valuable resource.

It is important for any organization to develop high potential employees, because they could be the future leaders of your organization.  Before they even become future leaders they are valuable in whatever position they serve.  Dr. John Sullivan, professor of management at San Francisco State University and previous chief talent officer for Agilent Technologies, states that top performers have the ability to out produce their peers and colleagues by anywhere from 25 to 1000 percent.  High potentials are employees that have immediate as well as future benefits that every organization desires.

It is never too early to seek out your high potential employees.  Even during the hiring process you can do some investigating.  Use past experiences to fuel your interview.  For instance look at you top performers in the respective role you are interviewing for and take note of the traits that make them top performers.  What characteristics do they exhibit? Some common high potential traits include: seek continuous learning, thrive on challenge, willing to take risks, create collaborative partnerships within the organization, self-reflective, and value knowledge.

At the same time, you do not want to have a team who are all alike.  Find someone who fits these guidelines however brings something new to the team as well.  The DNA of high potential employees is constantly being rewritten and there is no cookie cutter mold of the ‘high potential employee’.  If you focus on their strengths and see what they can bring to the table, some of their weaknesses may be overcome.  For example, if you have an individual in sales whose numbers are constantly off the charts, yet they lack technical knowledge, you can strengthen the weaknesses of the employee’s through on the job training, mentoring with a more technical person, or creating pre-sales technical support.

I have written in the past about the issues of letting your organization become a rotating door and the devastating outcomes that can result from that.  When you have a high potential on your team who is constantly striving to do better and sets a high standard other employees will benefit from this type of role model.  A rising tide raises all ships, and that is true in this situation as well. Just be sure that the performance gap isn’t large because you will risk losing your high potential because they will become frustrated. High potentials don’t want to be working with poor performers.

High potentials will come in and prove their worth and progress quickly in the company.  This will help alleviate the issue of trying to hire new personnel directly to a management position, and help to keep company culture strong.  With high potential employees not only are you molding the current employees to become future leaders but at the same time you are eliminating cultural integration and process training that would have to be done when hiring a new leader, which can be costly.

High potential employees have the ability to set a standard among your team, save time and money from on the job training, motivate current employees to succeed, allow leaders to reevaluate their hiring process, and increase overall productivity in the workplace.  It is incredibly important to keep an eye out for any high potential employees and constantly study the DNA of top performers.  Utilize past history to predict future performance.

What methods do you use to identify high potentials on a consistent basis? And how do you engage and retain them?

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