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strategy and business
 / Spring 2014 / Issue 74(originally published by Booz & Company)


Align with Your Star Employees

In preparation for the meetings, review their answers and ready yourself to facilitate discussions that get to the core of who they are and what they love. For example, why did they enjoy the acquisition project, or find the new product rollout frustrating, or highlight “feeding the poor” as something they want to be remembered for? Note any inconsistencies among their motivators, values, and career goals (for example, that they want to spend more time with their family but are interested in working in a global position). Last but not least, determine whether their five-year career goal is specific and aspirational enough to be used as a touchstone in career and performance conversations that follow.

Make the meetings all about them. Ask questions, reflect what you hear, and be encouraging. Don’t provide feedback or advice—just listen and learn. If you follow these simple steps, your people will leave the meetings feeling honored, respected, and energized.

Employees who have participated in these discussions tell me time and time again that this is the first time their supervisor—or any supervisor—invested time to get to know them with the goal of actively sponsoring their career development.

Determining Their Capabilities

Now that you have a good understanding of what makes your high potentials tick, it’s time to help them better understand their capabilities and the type of learning experiences that will help them get from where they are to where they want to be. At this point, you may want to engage a coach—internal or external—to assist your efforts. Coaches can effect changes you cannot because they have specialist know-how, dedicated time, and the ability to create a nonthreatening climate in which your high potentials can come to grips with their capabilities and work on their development.

Evaluate capabilities by using a 360-degree assessment. If your organization doesn’t have a standard 360 tool and program in place, you can obtain “good enough” feedback using an online survey tool, asking the following question to generate rich narrative feedback: To be even more effective, what should the participant do more often, do less often, and not change?

In partnership with the high potentials, identify which of their strengths can be leveraged and which weaknesses need to be mitigated in light of their career goals. Help them answer the question, “What type of assignments will help me build the capabilities I need while adding value to the company?” I think of the intersection of capabilities, career goals, and the company’s strategic interests as the development “sweet spot” (see Exhibit).

Twenty percent of high potentials believe that their personal aspirations are quite different from what the organization has planned for them, note Jean Martin and Conrad Schmidt in the Harvard Business Review article “How to Keep Your Top Talent” (May 2010). By targeting learning opportunities to the sweet spot, you strengthen the developmental partnership and position high potentials for greater contributions while fostering their inherent motivation to make an impact.

Crafting the Right Challenges

In a hypercompetitive business climate, it’s relatively easy to identify challenging opportunities that tap into the goals and motivators of high potentials. As a leadership coach, I rarely have to recommend job changes in order to find rich learning opportunities for my clients. Likewise, you can serve up opportunities on virtually a real-time basis by sculpting positions to fit development needs rather than the other way around.

It’s relatively easy to identify challenging opportunities that tap into the goals of high potentials.

Once you and your high potentials have defined their development plans and supporting experiences, get together with each of them monthly to review progress, remove obstacles, express appreciation, and provide encouragement. With frequent interaction, the annual or semiannual performance review should be easy to prepare. Just be sure to give feedback within the context of your high potential’s broader career objectives, rather than related to his or her current assignment, as the former will be deemed more important and demonstrate that you are keeping your employee’s long-term interests at heart.

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