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Your High-Potential Employees


It’s Not Enough to Just Give Them More Money, You Have to Engage Them.

By Steve Schumacher

One of the greatest professional accomplishments I’ve ever had was setting up a process for a company to identify and develop high-potential employees. Up until that point, everyone worked off of their gut feeling to identify them and make sure they got special attention.

The process wasn’t systematic at all. In fact, many of those high-potential employees had left the company because they didn’t know they had been identified. They knew they were doing well but, without being actively engaged, they really didn’t know how they were perceived by the company leadership. The president of the company wanted to put a process in place that made sure high-potentials were actively engaged and on a specific track to leadership positions. It took us a year to get the process in place.

At the end of that year, every employee in the company had their potential reviewed at least quarterly by a team of people trained in the process of identifying and developing high-potential employees. Here are some issues to address prior to putting a process like this in place:

1. Define “high-potential” and how it will be measured.
There are a lot of personality assessments and intelligence tests that can be used to help. Look at track records. The best predictor of future performance is past performance. Assess leadership skills. Use a 360-degree leadership assessment to establish a baseline and record progress over time. Some companies make blanket statements like “are able to be promoted within two years.”

2. Who has responsibility to develop high-potentials?
Have discussions about whether they are to be moved only vertically or horizontally within a division, region, or the entire company. The best processes I’ve seen consider high-potential employees as a company asset and see their development as an organization-wide opportunity and responsibility.

3. Should high-potentials be informed?
My experience is that the process works best when high-potential employees are told their status and are actively engaged in their development. The company and the employee need to both take accountability for their development. Keep it a secret and you run the risk of the employee leaving.

4. Keep the talent pool active.
Just like everything else in business, your pool of high-potential employees should always be fluid. The top executives should not only be assessing high-potentials constantly, they need to be evaluating the process also. Is it delivering what it is intended to deliver? Can it be made more timely and efficient? Career aspirations change and the process needs to reflect that.

5. Choose developmental assignments wisely.
Consider special assignments, mentoring, coaching, visibility and challenge. Look for assignments that will enhance big picture, technical and interpersonal skills. Regardless, of the assignment, on-going feedback and support are essential.

Some common mistakes to avoid:

  • Not having a program at all.
  • Assuming high-potentials are highly engaged.
  • Equating current high performance with future potential.
  • Lack of senior management personal involvement and ownership.
  • Treating high-potentials like everyone else (e.g. compensation).
  • Not linking high-potential developmental experiences to the company’s overall business strategy.
  • Lack of talent-tracking metrics.

Once you’ve addressed the initial issues, it’s time to put the specific process in place. There are some definitive steps to take that will make the process go smoothly:

  1. Develop a form for each high-potential employee to fill out that allows them to identify career aspirations, strengths and weaknesses.
  2. Set up teams at each pay level that have the responsibility of evaluating the pay level below them.
  3. Identify a facilitator for the teams to train them and guide them with the process.
  4. Keep individual files for each high-potential employee that includes their performance evaluations, 360-degree feedback outcomes, personal data form and any other relevant information.
  5. Initially, ensure that every employee is evaluated and given the opportunity to opt out. Over time, the work of the teams will be primarily with the true high-potential employees.
  6. Incorporate education on the process in your on-boarding programs.

In a January 2011 survey of human resources professionals, researchers at Southern Methodist University’s (SMU) Cox School of Business found 98 percent of respondents projected continuing current levels or modest increases in spending on leadership training in 2011, even in the face of continuing economic uncertainty.

Having good leaders matters. They can inspire, energize and enable companies to achieve objectives they never thought possible. If you haven’t by now, it is time for you to identify who your future leaders are and put them on a track that will engage them and ensure their, and your, future success.


Steve Schumacher is a management consultant, trainer and public speaker with more than 25 years of experience in numerous industries throughout North America, including aggregates operations. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..