3 Ways to Maximize High-Potential Employees

high-potential employees

Suppose you have a terrific employee who demonstrates exceptional talent in all the areas you covet - the ability to create change, actively lead, and support growth in a way that resonates with the organization's cultural norms.

When employees demonstrate this type of performance consistently over time, you probably label them high potential and in many cases, actively invest in them - give them more responsibility, expect that they will continue to contribute with the same magnitude.

But there's a surprising side effect to this high-potential label: it can weigh people down or even push them out the door.

"For some people," wrote organizational behavior experts Jennifer Petriglieri and Gianpiero Petriglieri on Harvard Business Review, "being recognized as talented turns out to be a curse."

Holding On to Promising Employees

The authors call it a gifted-child syndrome: promising employees who experience overwhelming pressure to live up to the smart and talented label, and then silence their own passions and needs to do so. The result is stunted development, decreased engagement, and a once promising employee making a hasty exit.

It's a bitter pill, especially when talent wars are prompting organizations to invest heavily in advancing internal talent. How can we identify, acknowledge, and promote our superstars in a more effective way? In short, we need to recognize that the term "high potential" carries baggage, and redefine these employees' tracks so they can be successful. How?

Use labels that are broad and inclusive

"High potential" has no parameters. It means you have potential to become something (versus being something now) and puts no label on what "something" is. Smart managers are choosing adjectives for superstars that are inclusive of diverse work styles and career priorities, but that make it clear what "potential" means. Such adjectives might include terms like readiness for advancement, growing leaders, or next generation leaders.

Allow employees to define their own paths

Organizations today aren't one dimensional; instead, they function as ecosystems that are reliant on agile leaders who have the knowledge and capacity to lead diverse parts of the business. Ask your high-potential leaders what they want.  Allow them to identify and define their future career paths.  Balance that with an internal transfer and promotion process that gives full transparency to opportunities across the organization. Remember: career journeys are not ladders going in only one direction.

Help people take care of themselves

High potentials need to know both that it's OK to take a break, and that their reputation will not suffer for doing so. Support healthy delegation. Provide them with coaching from someone other than their managers. And make sure their development includes opportunities for reflection.  All will help build mindfulness and resilience. The goal is that as you ask them to "do" more, you are helping them to "be" more, too.

The advice isn't just for the sake of the high-potential employee. In order to ensure healthy leadership pipelines, organizations must build practices for talent development and mobility that keep their high potentials healthy and thriving.

So sit down with your promising employees and ask them about their lives and their work and reframe what it means to be high potential. You may be amazed by what you find out. Even better, you might just turn a curse into a blessing...for everyone.

Written by: Bright Horizons Blog Editor

About the Author

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The Bright Horizons Blog Editor frequently posts on the real solutions that meaningfully support employees, advance careers, and drive the world’s leading brands. The Editor curates the latest news, trends, and challenges facing HR pros because your time is scarce. Follow the Bright Horizons Blog to receive this insight in your inbox.