Leadership Solutions from Read Solutions Group: Developing High-Potential Employees

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Developing High-Potential Employees

In this article, we explore the role of coaching in the development of high-potential employees and its link to retention of these key staff members.

What is a high-potential employee? A generic definition is an individual expected to excel at a position X levels above their current role. Companies often make this more specific to their needs, incorporating a specific leadership level, within a particular time horizon, and most importantly, based on the foreseeable needs of the business. High potential employees demonstrate capabilities in the functional requirements of the business and their specific roles (can do), the personal motivation and drive to excel now and in the future (will do), and the behaviors that ongoing delivery of results (how do).

Marshall Goldsmith, as one of the world's foremost executive coaches has identified the key characteristics and needs of high potential employees (known as hi-pos) ("Coaching Free Agents" audio presentation). Hi-pos see themselves as free agents running their careers as "ME, Inc.", not limiting themselves to being a corporate employee. Retaining and developing these hi-pos brings special requirements. When dealing with hi-pos as free agents, it is most effective to:

  1. Treat the high-potential employee, not as a subordinate, but as a partner in their work and career.

  2. Recognize that "team-player" from their perspective means that this is a win-win result.

  3. Deal openly with their self-interest.

  4. Demonstrate candor in your interactions.

  5. Go out of your way to demonstrate flexibility (see Mass Career Customization for more suggestions in this area).

A well-designed and implemented high-potential program include systems for identification, communication about being viewed as a high-potential, moving through clearly defined roles in the organization, mentoring by senior leaders, accelerated development, and continually feedback.


Coaching has the goal of accelerating leadership growth and delivery of business objectives. Adults learn most effectively through a cycle of experience - reflection - generalization - experimentation. A coach, whether an executive coach or the manager, consciously moves the person through these phases. In the case of a successful outcome, no matter how large or small, the employee will learn through receiving positive, concrete feedback in combination with the opportunity to reflect and gain their own insights. Useful questions to begin this dialogue include:

  • Would you like to give yourself feedback here?

  • Tell me about one new thing you learned about yourself through this project.

  • Tell me about the two challenges you faced and overcame.

  • What new skills or management muscles did you discover, develop or strengthen through this project?

When a high-potential employee is placed into a stretch assignment, the opportunity for less than stellar results and even failure are greatly increased. It is critical that the high-potential program provide a sponsor, champion or person otherwise capable of providing a safety net. Failure, or less than expected success is an enormous opportunity for learning. By applying similar questions to the above, the hi-pos can reflect on their experience, identify the strengths that supported them, the areas of growth that are needed, and put in place a plan for developing new habits, behaviors and/or skills.

While the effective focus is on building on strengths, there are often areas that may limit performance now or into the future. Rather than tell people what they did wrong, lead them to their own insights. It is best to start with asking for permission to engage in a discussion on how you might be able to help the person fulfill their potential. Once the issue is identified, it is often best to have the employee develop awareness of how others work and behave, and then to compare what they observe to their own style. Ask the person to pick one specific change and work with them to implement the change.

High-potential employees are strongly engaged in their own development and careers. When you, as a manager, company or coach, work with people to develop their capability and deliver stronger results, they become more engaged, more effective and exhibit higher retention rates.


As a final note, effective ways of working with high-potential employees and those identified in research on Gen Y'ers (see Retaining Young Talent). Perhaps the lesson is that management and leadership skills need to evolve in order to get the best of our people in today's world.


What are your thoughts on effective ways of dealing with high-potential employees and young talent?

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