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Strategies for Managing High-Potential Employees

7 MINUTE READ | October 24, 2018

Strategies for Managing High-Potential Employees

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Chris Sinclair

Chris Sinclair has written this article. More details coming soon.

Identifying and developing your future leaders, stars, Hi-Po’s, A-Players or whatever else you call your high-potential employees, has long been a quest for companies big and small across the globe. The challenge of properly identifying them is tough, and giving them the development and stretch opportunities they need to realize their significant potential and keeping them motivated and engaged is even tougher.

To top it all off, despite US companies spending billions of dollars a year on leadership and high potential development programs, most have no idea if they are working or not — either for the employees or for the organization as a whole.

Managing High-Potential Employees

At PMG, and especially on the People Operations team, we spend a lot of time considering what is performance vs. what is potential. We do so because it is a combination of these two factors that help identify the truly high potential, future leader, and spending time defining what these mean and the criteria associated with each, is the building blocks of any high potential development strategy.

To help us do this all our managers participate in a talent assessment and calibration twice a year, where we look at our teams through both these lenses – Performance and Potential. Performance is always easier to distill and define (does the employee meet the expectations of their role and of their manager, do they exceed them, or are they falling short?) and Potential is always a bit tougher to read since it has such a heavy eye to the future and can be subjective in nature.

For Potential, you are asking yourself: how far can this person go? How high can they soar? Can they be a future leader at the company? Do they have what it takes to continue taking on responsibilities, to elevate their thinking, and to make a greater impact on the organization as they grow?

A high-potential employee, for me, is an employee that has the soft skills, the learning agility, and the drive necessary to thrive and progress not only in their role but within the wider organization. Potential doesn’t manifest the same way for any two employees, but there are generally some consistent qualities high potential employees typically have:

  1. Self-awareness. They understand their strengths, their development areas, where they need support from others to grow.

  2. Critical thinking. They quickly gain hard skills and knowledge through their ability to learn, but even when a topic is new or outcomes unknown, they possess the problem-solving and critical thinking skills to develop innovative solutions.

  3. Drive. They possess grit in the traditional, Angela Duckworth sense of the word, but they also have an innate drive to succeed, grow, and take on more and more responsibility.

  4. Consistency. They are a “star” not because they do something great one time; they are a star because they do so consistently and reliably, and this is part of their “brand” as a team member.

To better identify high-potentials at PMG, and help “ground” this analysis for our managers, we ask them these questions:

  • Does this employee have leadership potential?

  • Is the employee self-aware of their professional development needs and receptive to feedback?

  • Has the employee mastered complex skills such as adaptability, conceptual thinking, and navigating ambiguity?

  • Does the employee balance agency values and results?

We manage every employee uniquely at PMG because no two individuals, or even two roles, are the same. Each person needs something different from their managers in terms of feedback, coaching, or training. As an example: while one team member may be high confidence and need predominantly constructive feedback to grow, another may be naturally less confident, so the balance of constructive and positive feedback must be more equitable.

When it comes to high-potential employees, the primary goal of the manager is to challenge them, provide stretch opportunities, and next-level exposure. This differs from a more moderate potential employee, where the goals might be to provide motivation, variety in their projects, and recognition so they know they are valued.

In order to help a high-potential employee succeed, it’s critical the manager first identifies their potential, then provides the personalized growth and learning opportunities they need to develop to their fullest.

Once you have them pegged as a high-potential, we recommend following these tips and best practices:

  1. Allow them to take the lead. High-potentials are generally naturally driven and will gladly take the lead on projects and initiatives; encourage this as it will not only promote ownership and accountability, but also the leadership abilities required to lead teams and larger team projects later down the line.

  2. Set new goals with them regularly. “Newness” and challenge motivates high-potential employees, so it’s important to ensure they have goals to strive towards and that these goals are reassessed for relevance and level of stretch regularly.

  3. Provide stretch opportunities. High-potentials grow by taking on and figuring out opportunities they are not quite ready for. Their ability to problem solve, innovate, and cope with ambiguity, will all be allies here but as a manager, you have to provide the right opportunities, then the right level of support to ensure if they fail the impact is not significant enough to impact the organization.

  4. Enable easy access to external education. Since high-potentials are highly-motivated to learn and succeed, giving them opportunities to learn outside your organization through online classes, in-person training, and seminars will encourage them to keep growing in their role. You’ll be surprised at how willing a high potential employee will be to jump in and learn something completely new or dive deep into a training experience to strengthen their current skill set. And never (ever) underestimate the power of reading as a means to broaden their aperture either — encourage them to read, research, and build this time into their everyday.

  5. Allow for “next level” exposure. This strategy is often overlooked, but one of the best ways to help a high-potential employee grow into future roles is to expose them to what those roles are really like. If the high-potential is being groomed for your role, take them to meetings with you, have them go in your place if you can’t attend, let them shadow you on a strategic project, or de-brief them on your latest initiative or project and what you learned and could have done better.

  6. Provide mentorship as well as management. Management is the structured, formal way in which you grow and develop your direct reports. Mentorship is less formal, less structured, and more about coaching and advice than it is feedback and direction. Setting high-potential employees up with the right mentor can help accelerate their growth and get them different perspectives from a leader outside of their immediate team or function.

PMG’s culture is perfectly suited for high-potential employees. Innovation and achievement are core to our company and our values, and recognition and rewards are distributed based on merit. This allows high-potential employees to advance quickly, grow their responsibilities and take on leadership roles much faster than they could in other organizations.

We also work hard to ensure employees have access to all the learning and development opportunities they need to fuel their growth. In fact, PMG provides almost 3 times the number of L&D hours to employees each year than our competitors. We do this through in-house expertise, our partners like Google and Facebook, and by bringing in 3rd-party speakers like “Radical Candor” author Kim Scott.

Interested in joining the PMG team?

Lastly, our recruiting practices help support our goal of attracting high-potential employees – we recruit from top schools nationally, we offer employees a market-leading total rewards package, the chance to work on top brands like Beats by Dre and Gap, and assessing “potential” is part of our candidate assessment process (never just performance or experience).

To formalize all the great work PMG does for our high-potential employees and to provide more structure, consistency, and rigor here, we will be introducing our first formal high-potential leadership program at PMG in 2019. We are excited to continue supporting the growth of these future leaders and helping them achieve more than they thought was possible!

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