7 Steps for Developing High-Potential Employees

Kathy Irish | Dec 13, 2016

High-performing employees are the backbone of any organization. The old saying is true: Roughly 80 percent of the growth of any organization is achieved by 20 percent of its workforce. But high-performing employees don’t just fall out of the sky, they start as high-potential employees.

To harness the power of your high-performing employees, identifying those with potential is the first critical step. What if you’ve identified those individuals already? What now?

Even those employees that show all the signs of potential; working hard, a willingness to take responsibility, a healthy store of knowledge and experience, need to be trained and refined. This training should go beyond just the basics of compliance and role-specific training.

In short, you need to invest in a pipeline for creating high-performing employees. Creating a solid program to do just that requires seven steps:

1) Establish their strengths and weaknesses through assessment. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. In successful organizations, the strengths are used wisely, while the weaknesses are addressed through training and mentoring.

Formal assessment should be your first step in discovering both. Formal assessment reduces the bias of other methods, such as interviews or personal observation. They also give you concrete, measurable data you can use to track progress over time.

2) Give them “enrichment” courses for where they are strong. Once you have assessed your high-potentials and identified their strengths, you will want to bring those strengths to bear on the activities of your organization. One way to do this involves “enrichment” training, either through courses or through a mentorship. This enrichment should include advanced instruction in skills that can be of potential benefit to your organization, along with their application in concrete situations. For example, if a high-potential seems to have strength in influencing others, offer advanced courses in personal influence and team leadership, or pair the person with a mentor in a team leadership position.

3) Give them candid feedback and training opportunities for where they are weak. Where employees are weak, you need to give candid feedback about what is expected, and where the weakness lies. Only then can you begin to address those weaknesses. Employees that are truly high potential will appreciate the feedback and show an eagerness to improve.

For example, you might have an employee that shows potential but has problems with time management. Take the time to have a one-on-one conversation with them about it. Make clear the need to balance the various demands of the job, then offer some resources for addressing the issue. Short-form videos can be an especially good tool because the employee can watch them and then get right back to work—especially important if time management is the issue. 

4) Reinforce their learning at every step. Training does little good if the information “learned” is not retained. Unfortunately, studies have shown that people forget 70% of what they are taught within the first 24 hours after the initial learning event.

Luckily, there are many ways to make content more memorable, and many practical tools for reinforcing training after the fact, too. Only with reinforcement will you realize a positive ROI in training high-potential employees.

5) Create a personal “track” to prepare them for bigger roles. Training usually isn’t cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all, especially when it comes to developing high-potentials. These individuals will have different strengths and weaknesses (as you will discover through assessment) and will want to work through the training you provide at their own pace.

The best thing to do is to encourage them to work independently when they can and track their progress. This can be done with a learning management system that records which courses they have started, which they have completed, and when they are ready to take a further assessment.

6) Set them up with a mentor. While we are advocates for online courses, such courses do not conflict with good old-fashioned mentoring. In fact, the two practices can mutually enhance one another. So set up your high-potential for success by pairing him or her with a mentor who fills a position the high-potential is being groomed for, and who can truly speak to that individual’s weaknesses.

7) Treat them like an investment. We’re not suggesting that you should not treat people like people. What we are suggesting is that you expend the resources to develop your high-potentials so that they can become the 20 percent that eventually bring your organization to the next level. Too often, we see organizations that rely on their high-performers but do little to keep the pipeline of high-performers going.

Indeed, we’re reminded of that famous dialogue, often attributed to Richard Branson and his CFO:

CFO: Why are we spending all this money on training our star employees? What happens if we train them, and then they leave?

Branson: OK, good point. But let me ask this: What happens if we don’t, and they stay?

Join 1,000+ companies using Thinkzoom to increase employee engagement

Get ej4 content delivered straight to your inbox