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4 Points for Leading High Potential Employees


4 Points for Leading High Potential Employees

Q: Our board of directors has a focus on developing employees and building bench strength. To that end, HR has developed a program for high potentials. They have provided criteria for the selection process. But they have been vague on how best to manage them. They suggest two things:

  • Challenge high potentials in a variety of situations and circumstances
  • Provide assessments on their growth regularly

A manager identified as “high potential” recently joined my team. Suggestions for leading this manager, who has a great future with the company, would be appreciated.

A: High potentials look for opportunities to increase their direct influence. They also want to take on assignments with real risks and rewards.

As HR suggested, they should be challenged in a variety of settings and circumstances. Settings and circumstances with exposure, accountability and access are most appropriate.

The fact that your company has a high potentials’ program with board oversight is impressive. It says your company has a stake in developing and retaining its future leaders. As a leader in the company, you have a responsibility to prepare this manager and other high potentials for advancement.

4 points for consideration in managing High Potentials:

1. Planning Session

A one-on-one session is a good starting point. This starting point involves you both in his professional development. During this session, you can gain an appreciation for his accomplishments and aspirations. An open and direct two-way dialog will help you do two things:

  • Assess how his interests can best be balanced within your team
  • Target assignments to help him grow toward his potential

High potentials want to know that the company is investing in them. Involving him in a brainstorming session about areas of focus and potential assignments is vital. It will illustrate that he has a hand in the way he develops and his career unfolds. It will also let him know that the company is taking his grooming seriously.


2. Autonomy

The endowment effect suggests that when people take ownership, they immediately value it more. To that end, give this manger ownership. High potentials flourish when they are truly responsible for something. That means you should facilitate, not direct, his ability to succeed. The following are “guidelines” for giving him autonomy:

  • Unleash his intuition, creativity and business acumen
  • Give him freedom to make decisions and own his assignments
  • Empower him to deliver and make an impression
  • Recognize that mistakes provide learning
  • Coach and support his growth


3. Scaffolding

In construction, scaffolding expands to reach new heights. The same is true in business. Scaffolding will help him stretch beyond his comfort zone and learn new skills. The stretch assignment should help set the stage for more responsibility and expanded leadership experiences.

The three Ws will give you insights on what constitutes a stretch assignment.

  • Where he has been
  • When assignments leveraged learning
  • What he aspire to do next

By building upon the three Ws, you help develop his leadership abilities and other skills necessary for career advancement.

Tips for stretch assignments include:

  • Connecting assignments with goals and learning
  • Finding opportunities for education specific to his grooming
  • Gearing assignments toward selection and advancement decisions
  • Thinking about visibility but not letting it be the driver
  • Planning ways to give exposure

4. Communication

Frequent communication is essential. Scheduled one-on-one sessions and impromptu conversations will keep the lines of communication open. The conversations should be aimed at developing attributes he will need for advancement. Specifically, they should center around:

  • Providing feedback on behaviors
  • Tracking progress with autonomy
  • Discussing learning from the scaffolding

The on-going dialogs will let him know he matters to the company. And frequent talks about his growth and development ensure they are being fostered and managed.

High potentials generally have a greater appetite for feedback, both constructive and positive. The blog post, Developing versus Correcting with Constructive Feedback, provides information on a behavioral feedback format. This particular format lends itself to teaching and coaching specific behaviors.

Note: Research done by the University of Michigan Business School suggests a 6-to-1 ratio of positive comments to constructive feedback.

Alex, I hope these four points offer insight and ideas for managing high potentials. Reaching out to me shows that you are taking this responsibility to heart. Good luck with your high potential manager. My intuition tells me that he will grow by having you as his leader.

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