How to spot high-potential employees

by 10 Nov 2007

Why is it important?

Only one-third of 200 surveyed UK companies manage to retain all or most of their high-potential employees, while less than one-quarter believe their current processes will deliver the leaders they need for the future.

That’s according to a recent survey Potential For What? conducted by recruitment and HR specialists Hay Group with the Management Consultancies Association. The research also demonstrates that most organisations fail to identify and develop their most talented individuals.

Chris Watkin, head of talent management at the Hay Group, says: “The way we treat potential, and the steps we take to ensure that those employees with the capability and desire to become leaders succeed, matters more than ever. The retirement of the baby boomers will leave a talent gap that many organisations will struggle to fill.”

He suggests one reason for this is that few HR departments identify the future needs of their business before embarking on a high-potential program.

Such programs should be driven by a business rationale – whether this is to fill a particular skills gap or help younger blood progress to the top of the organisation – but Watkin advises that not all organisations need high-potential programs.

“The worst thing a company can do is identify, develop and raise expectations of high-potential staff only to have nowhere to place them,” he adds.

Reach for the stars

Many organisations are capable of identifying ‘star performers’ if they are performing exceptionally well in their current roles. However, being a star performer simply means being a good fit to a certain job – it is not necessarily a permanent trait, and does not equal readiness for promotion.

High potentials have the ability to grow into larger leadership roles. Sometimes an individual with great potential has the underlying qualities to do the job well, but without the skills and experience will take longer to get up to speed, but ultimately they will produce better results. These high potentials are harder to identify.

Watkin says that the importance of investing in high-potential development programs lies not just in identifying an organisation’s most talented people, but in accelerating their growth so that they are ready for high-level jobs sooner.

Hay Group research also shows that the highest performing organisations are more likely to have a formal process for identifying their top talent.

Ready, willing and able

When assessing whether an employee has high potential, start by asking yourself three questions, advises Watkin:

• Are they ready – do they have the skills and expertise to move into a new role?

• Are they willing – do they want to rise in the organisation?

• Are they able – do they possess the right characteristics for the organisation or a specific role?

These characteristics can be broken down into the ‘growth’ factors that predict long-term potential –important in assessing aptitude for leadership – and the competencies that predict success in a particular role, which tend to signify short-term specific job potential.

Hay Group has identified four ‘growth factors’–traits which affect a person’s ability to develop over time. These are: the ability to think beyond boundaries a curiosity and eagerness to learn social understanding (empathy) and emotional balance.

All of these traits should be recognisable early in an individual and prove useful in high-level leadership roles. However, a scheme for high potentials should not take the place of a wider employee engagement program.

For more information

Building Tomorrows Talent: A practitioners guide to talent management and succession planning, by Doris Sims and Matthew Gay, AuthorHouse, 2007, ISBN 1425994652

By Natalie Cooper. Courtesy of Personnel Today


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