As a development-oriented leader, you should care about all of your employees, but invest disproportionately in your high potentials because they deliver more value today and will deliver even more tomorrow. (People designated as high potentials are three times more likely to succeed as future leaders than the average employee, according to the CEB research.)
Identifying Top Talent
To retain top talent, you have to know who the stars are. Begin by looking around. Who are the professionals who go the extra mile to deliver strong results, master new types of expertise, blaze new paths with a feel for opportunity and timing, forge strong relationships, and serve as a role model and mentor for others?
Although these attributes may appear neat and tidy, the process to identify those who possess them is anything but. The process of senior leaders meeting annually to calibrate and identify top talent is typically quite painful. Participants try to appear objective and arrive at consensus, but their information is often flawed, a combination of insights sourced from limited interactions and sketchy office gossip.
You can help counterbalance faulty decision making by spending more time with your people. Take note of employees who are associated with successful initiatives, names that are repeatedly mentioned when tough assignments need to be staffed, and the sources of the insight that bubbles up about what is going on—both within the organization and with competitors and the industry. Remember the people who raise their hands and volunteer for new assignments, who shine as positive role models, and who are able to retain staff and easily fill open positions.
With careful listening and observation, your list of high potentials will shape up pretty quickly. In addition, be sure to include the “diamond in the rough” employees (those who appear to have high potential but are performing below expectations) as well as the highly capable and valuable “aces in their places” (who keep operations humming along). This last group is made up of employees of long tenure who know how work gets done—lose them, and performance will suffer.
Understanding Their Goals
Leaders can reduce the risk of losing good people for the wrong reasons by working with them to understand their passions and career goals and serving up challenging assignments that help them grow from where they are to where they would like to go.
Customizing opportunities to each employee requires understanding that person’s goals, motivations, and values. It’s a simple process, but very few leaders do it—or even know how to. Take a look at these questions and answer them as you believe one of your direct reports would:
- What are your proudest accomplishments and biggest disappointments? Why?
- Which activities energize you and which drain you?
- How would you rank the following rewards: financial gain, power and influence, autonomy, affiliation, lifestyle, intellectual challenge, competence, recognition?
- If you died tomorrow, what would you want your legacy to be?
- What is your five-year career goal? If you don’t have one, what’s your best guess?
Don’t feel bad if you’re left with a lot of white space. You aren’t alone: Over the past 15 years, not once have I met a leader who could answer the majority of these questions. Typically, leaders get to know their people within the context of their current assignments, treating their past and their imagined future as unimportant to the task at hand.
But they are important, and you should care. Kick-start the process of getting to know your top talent by meeting with them one-on-one for 90 minutes. When scheduling the meetings, let them know that you want to get to know them better and discuss their passions and career goals. Send them the questions above, requesting that they provide written responses along with their most current resume prior to the meeting.