Setting Up High Potential Employees for Long-Term Success

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high potential employees

A reader recently asked: We’ve been incredibly fortunate to recruit a talented group of new college graduates. We’ve never had a high potential program before and believe we should institute one now. What do we need to know before we begin?

Development is critical to many employees. Research has repeatedly found that the most talented of your employees will benefit significantly from initiatives specifically created to help their career development and trajectory, such as high potential programs.

Malcolm S. Carter, is an experienced human capital leader, having served at GE Capital, Hexcel, and Moody Analytics, where he designed and lead high potential programs. He explained the vital elements of any well designed high potential program in a far-reaching conversation.

We begin with a discussion on what constitutes a high potential employee, along with the more provocative question: why should we care? Mr. Carter describes “hi po’s” as committed lifelong learners. Further, he sees them possessing the ability to utilize previous experiences, applying their knowledge in solving problems where wholly different and challenging situations crop up. And as is often anticipated, high potentials are expected to grow into leadership positions at some point in the organization.

Why are “Hi Po” Programs Important?

Organizations continue to increase their hi po program budgets to develop “star employees” because they fully anticipate these very individuals will fill future leadership roles. Succession planning and expanded leadership candidates are great needs (irrespective of market or industry), underscoring the need to groom individuals for promotions systematically.

Additionally, even without promotional consideration, equipping employees with the ability to handle challenges, positioning them to be more innovative and competitive is a wise investment.

Is a great performer or someone evaluated as exceeding expectations the same as a hi po candidate?  An “exceeds expectations” is an employee performing above their peers – in his/her current role. The key distinction, to being considered a hi po, however, is he/she can grow typically as many as two levels beyond his/her current rank. Exceptional performers may be the best at their current jobs, but may not have the ability to transition to more senior positions. When identified correctly, high potentials will have the ability to progress into senior-level positions at some future point.

Key Elements of a Hi Po Program

Carter strongly recommends starting with a reliable and valid means of identifying this talent. Namely, an assessment tool designed to assess potential in terms of career growth and knowledge acquisition.  Numerous assessments are available; however, Mr. Carter has used the TalentX7 tool extensively and recommends it noting, “it assesses potential – exactly what we should be looking for.”  He does offer a note of caution:  Assess and select carefully. Nominating high performers who are not high potentials can cause them to struggle and even fail. 

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As you define your program, be sure to consider the different categories.  These categories can serve as the cohort designation for individuals, aligning them with similar colleagues.  A few sample categories might include:

  • Functionally Specific (finance, engineering, etc.)
  • Early career participants (those with less than three years of experience)
  • Mid-management
  • Executive placement programs

So, you assess your high potential candidates, align them with similar individuals, and then offer them programming. What types of offerings are most highly prized? Expected? Desirable? As with any developmental program, ensure that the experiences are relevant, timely (meaning sequenced and aligned where employees can put the knowledge to good use) and valuable. Having recognized the importance of these three requirements, hi po programming can include any of the following:

  • Rotational assignments (various sites - including ex-pat details, industries, departments)
  • Job shadowing (particularly helpful when the individual shadowed is influential or high visibility)
  • Cross-functional opportunities (outside of the direct line of expertise)
  • Quality time with senior leaders
  • Training, online learning, or even external certificate or degree programs
  • Action learning projects – undertaking real projects, reporting out to functional leadership, and then charged with implementation and management.

What level of financial investment should you plan to spend?  With budgets likely being strained as the economy repositions post-pandemic, available monies alone should not deter learning leaders and HR staff alike.

Traditionally, Mr. Carter urges new programs to set aside funds in three categories:

  • Assessment - estimates range anywhere from $250 to $600 per participant, pending on the type of instrument selected
  • Training and education – Between $5k and 10k per participant
  • Travel for cohort meetings, social gatherings, and networking opportunities - equivalent to $5,000 (assuming domestic travel only).

The investment allocated for programming is up to the discretion of the organization; however, part of the allure of being designated as high potential is the access afforded with this highly prized label. Start small if funds are limited; ensure every program event is equal to the reputations of those participating.

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The age-old high potential program question is related to tell or not tell. Do we tell those identified as hi po? Malcolm was quick to answer: absolutely. The program participants should be advised at the very outset of the evaluation before taking the assessment. Hi po’s will need to accept that they are being evaluated and could be selected (an extensive evaluation process is a pre-requisite). If this is not something of interest to the pool of candidates, they should be given an option at the outset to decline.   

Program participants need to understand the sensitivity in working as one tagged as a high potential amongst other employees. This label does not give anyone the right to brag, boast, or bully anyone not also identified. Program leaders need to remember that these individuals are relatively new in tenure and to the organization. Part of their development needs to be the emotional intelligence required to earn the tag of hi po and how to handle the designation with humility.

So, what does an organization get for creating a high-potential program? To name a few, high potential programs:

  • Are attractive and competitive to high potential talent while being mutually beneficial.
  • Equip future leaders with talent that is “battle-tested” and ready to lead.
  • Help motivate and empower innovative talent.
  • Facilitate knowledge handoff from retiring to new leaders through succession planning.
  • Train high potentials to handle change. 73% of organizations expect ongoing change initiatives (CEB, 2017).
  • Develop a strong leadership bench.

Finally, the appointment of an innovative and energetic program director for the program seems in line with expectations. High potential program members will resonate with high potential program directors. It is easy to see how someone like Malcolm Carter can engage and inspire gifted employees. Be sure to have someone of his caliber at the helm of any hi po program initiatives.

Remember, learn something new every day!