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Ways to Retain High Potential Employees

Posted by Insightlink on 12/06/16

If up to one quarter of your top talent is tempted to quit, what can you do to prevent them from leaving?

High-potentials are the people companies hate to lose. HR professionals are more anxious about losing these employees than any others and with up to one quarter of their top talent thinking of leaving, finding a solution is a struggle. In some cases, there are no solutions because if an employee is hard wired not to care about who they work for, they will leave if a better opportunity comes along and there is nothing you can do to change their minds. Fortunately, this represents about 5-6% in most companies. The good news is that not all high potentials are hard wired to leave…. It’s the problems they face that are frustrating them and cause them to begin to look elsewhere.

Who are these people?

In an article titled ‘Are You a High Potential’ the Harvard Business Review cited research by Jay Conger, Douglas Ready and Linda Hill who defined these employees in this way:
“High potentials consistently and significantly outperform their peer groups in a variety of settings and circumstances. While achieving these superior levels of performance, they exhibit behaviors that reflect their companies’ culture and values in an exemplary manner. Moreover, they show a strong capacity to grow and succeed throughout their careers within an organization—more quickly and effectively than their peer groups do.”

How do you retain these valued employees?

In an article published by SHRM titled ‘The Care and Feeding if High Potential Employees’, Robert Grossman, a professor of management studies, described the how the initial attraction begins as “ambitious, motivated, and highly intelligent employees are often swept off their feet by organizations that promise exciting challenges aboard an express train leading straight to the C-Suite.” The attraction is can be intense but that ‘express train’ can get derailed because many employers fail to make plans to retain their high potential employees.

If you are seriously motivated to retain high potential employees, you must take inventory of your organization because researchers have discovered there is a ‘huge divide between what employers think motivates high potentials and what actually motivates them’. Employers often demonstrate the strength of their programs using lists of what they ‘have given’ to employees such as attractive pay and benefits. A high potential employee may value these things but they are easily replicated elsewhere. Roland Smith lead researcher at the Center for Creative Leadership in Colorado Springs, Colorado says high potential employees are ‘looking for things that truly differentiate employers. These include opportunities to more directly influence and direct their careers and more challenging assignments with real risks and rewards.’ High potentials want regular feedback and to have options and input in their next career move.

Jean Martin executive director of the Corporate Leadership Council explains that most high potentials don’t succeed because they are not engaged and because the assignment is not what they want.

Here are some strategies to boost morale and engagement per Grossman:

  1. Tell them they are special:
    The Center for Creative Leadership research reveals only about 40% of employers formally tell high potentials of their status. Of the high potentials who were not formally told of their status, 33% went looking for a new job. Of the high potentials who were told they were special, only 14% were looking.
  2. Align individual and company needs during a consultive process:
    High potentials want to be involved in their development, not dictated to. Often, they are presented with assignments knowing that if they decline they will be left behind. A best practice situation would be focused on mutuality and reciprocity where interests on both sides are balanced.
  3. Delegate real responsibility:
    Research shows high potentials thrive when they are truly accountable for something. Don’t tell then what to do…within reason you must be prepared to let them make mistakes and give them the reins to direct or co-direct.
  4. Be flexible:
    Inflexible assignments that require relocation for example, can be morale busters or worse when people have young families. Creative solutions that respect lifestyle needs are important and can differentiate employees.
  5. Show them they matter:
    “Hug your high-potentials because if you don’t someone else will’ says Lauris Woolford executive vice president at the Cincinnati Bank. Feeling valued is a key driver in job satisfaction and employee engagement.
  6. Tap effective mentors:
    Who the monitor is makes a difference. High potentials want to interact with people they respect and who are good at supporting them. Take the time to find mentors who can challenge, assess, and support them.
  7. Foster invisibility:
    Insist on giving high potentials exposure to top decision makers not just face time.
  8. Make learning and advancement seem never ending:
    Provide options to move around location-wise or within the organization. In smaller organizations, it might be difficult to offer a steady stream of learning opportunities. Encourage high potentials to master skills outside of work and remember to give due weight to these activities. Valuing community service helps to develop leadership skills.
  9. Get buy in from top leaders:
    When the most senior executives are involved and they understand developing high potential talent is a key responsibility, there will be success. If senior leadership does not buy in, HR professionals are doomed to frustration because if it’s not important to CEO the program will not be as successful.

If your high potential employees are leaving you despite your best efforts, it is important to dig in and look at what is happening. From years of experience helping organizations brave up and take an honest look at what is happening from the inside out, we know that change is possible. Our anonymous employee surveys provide a forum for employees to tell you what they think and why they may have already decided to leave. When you have the knowledge and insight you can take action. If we can help please contact us at, call Lynn Gore at 866-802-8095 ext. 705 or visit our website to learn more about us at


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