Discussions of talent management frequently overlook the perspectives of high-potential talent. Management often misses the chance to better understand what the organization’s top talent says it needs.

We define high-potential talent as an employee who is assessed as having the ability, organizational commitment, and motivation to rise to and succeed in more senior positions in the organization. Different organizations will have their own definitions of high-potential talent, but the essence remains the same.

More important than the exact definition of high-potential talent, though, is understanding how your talented individuals experience being a high potential in your organization.

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Looking at the Leadership Pipeline? Consider The View from “Inside the Pipe”

Talent management represents an organization’s efforts to attract, develop, and retain skilled and valuable employees. Its goal is to have people with the capabilities and commitment needed for current and future organizational success. An organization’s talent pool — particularly its managerial talent — is often referred to as the leadership pipeline.

The leadership pipeline is designed to help the organization source, reward, evaluate, develop, and move employees into various roles. The pipeline bends, turns, and sometimes breaks as organizations identify who is “ready now” and who is “on track” for larger leadership roles. From this perspective, talent management is something done to and for an organization’s high-potential talent, in service of the organization’s needs.

But employees and managers who are inside the leadership pipeline don’t operate solely as a stream of talent to be funneled and directed by the organization. They bring their perspectives and experiences to the process, too.

To examine talent management through the eyes of high-potential managers, we conducted a research study surveying 199 leaders attending our development programs. The findings have implications for how organizations identify, invest in, and leverage their high-potential talent.

Here’s what we’ve learned about the perspectives of high-potential talent and their view from inside the leadership pipeline.

3 Ways to Retain High-Potential Talent

Findings from our research reveal 3 ways to retain high-potential talent:

  • career pathing and support,
  • greater authority, and
  • feedback and communication.

Infographic: 3 Ways to Retain High-Potential Talent

1. Career Pathing & Support

High potentials are more committed and engaged when they have a clear career path. The most frequently mentioned way to increase commitment and engagement among all high potentials is to help them identify a career path. High potentials want to have a picture of where they are going and to understand next steps in terms of development, experience, and movement. A yearly development plan may not be enough to increase the engagement and commitment of your high-potential talent without a clear career path and progression.

High potentials also expect more development, support, and investment — and they get it. Not surprisingly, our research found that high potentials receive more development opportunities — such as special assignments and training as well as mentoring and coaching from senior leaders — than other employees. This is as it should be; in our survey, 84% of high potentials agreed that organizations should invest more in them and other valuable talent.

2. Greater Authority

When a high potential is provided a special assignment, it likely means their level of responsibility has increased. Special assignments are described as high-profile work, participation on a task force team, as well as role rotations. While it may seem that organizations just reward their high-potential talent with more work, the assignments are often viewed by the recipients as opportunities, not burdens.

As high potentials receive greater responsibility, they are also looking for greater authority to make decisions that have a significant impact on the organization. High potentials are often given more visibility and access to senior managers than other employees. This visibility translates into greater recognition across the organization. They’re also included more often in senior meetings and have their opinions sought after more frequently, which increases their engagement and commitment to the organization.

3. Feedback & Communication

To retain high potential-talent, organizations should also be sure that high potentials receive plenty of communication about the pipeline process and more feedback on their performance. It appears that organizations are succeeding in challenging their high-potential talent with developmental assignments and providing support in the form of training, but could do more by providing high potentials with an honest assessment of where they stand and offering direct communication about the next steps.

The Impact of High-Potential Talent Identification

The degree of transparency and formality of notifying employees of their status as a high potential impacts how employees see themselves and how they see the organization.

In our study, we found that participants who are formally identified as high-potential talent are more likely to consider themselves high potentials than those who were informally identified. It seems that official recognition fosters the leaders’ identity as a high potential. Without that recognition, leaders may doubt or second-guess their skill level or importance to the organization.

This implies that positive feedback, a good track record, or informal acknowledgement of one’s value is not equivalent to “official” status as a high potential, as recognized by the organization.

Formal identification as a high potential is important for retention. Most of our survey respondents (77%) placed a high degree of importance on being formally identified as a high potential in their organization. The study showed several clear differences between high potentials who have been formally named and those who are perceived to be high potentials:

  • Only 14% of formally identified high potentials reported they were seeking other employment.
  • But among those who were informally identified as high potentials, more than double that many (33%) reported they were seeking other opportunities.

High potentials feel good about their status — but it has its downside. Survey respondents generally expressed positive feelings about being identified as a high potential by their organization. At the same time, the designation isn’t exclusively a win for those in the pipeline. For some, there is a feeling of increased pressure or anxiety around high expectations or performance; others experience frustration around the organization’s unclear intentions. 

3 Key Strategies for Leveraging High-Potential Talent

The findings from our study serve as a reminder that effective talent management is not a one-sided effort. Looking at the leadership pipeline through an organizational lens has important implications for how to identify, develop, and engage high potentials. 

Examining talent management from the perspective of those in the pipeline suggests 3 key strategies for organizations to consider:

1. Be deliberate about process transparency.

Given the value that high potentials place on access and opportunity, organizations need to consider how clear and direct they’re being about the degree of investment high-potential talent can expect.

The degree of transparency and formality in your process of identifying high potentials impacts how employees see themselves and the organization. Organizations should understand the implications of their approach and weigh the tradeoffs.

2. Create a mutually beneficial relationship between the organization and the talent.

A mutually beneficial relationship means addresses the benefits individuals receive as employees of the organization, but also takes into account and makes explicit the benefits the organization receives from its employees.

High potentials receive the investment in development they want from their organization, and organizations receive not only a more committed and engaged group of leaders but also stronger performance and bottom-line results.

Leaders play a critical role in the development process of high-potential talent, and can improve the talent development process with better talent conversations at the right times and in the right places. 

3. Leverage high potentials as developers of talent.

The organization’s investment in a high potential’s development shouldn’t stop with that individual. Because of the influence that high potentials possess, organizations should consider the ways in which high potentials may play a role in identifying and developing the organization’s next cadre of future leaders.

Make it clear that ‘moving up’ means developing others. Hold high potentials responsible for developing potential in others — and hold their bosses accountable, too. Help high potentials learn how to use challenging assignments and coaching to develop the talent around them. They definitely need to know how to hold coaching conversations with others.

High potentials are telling their organizations that they want—and deserve—greater opportunities and investment in their development. The extra investment is one reason why being formally recognized as a high potential is considered important. Our research has found that high potentials also receive differentiated and personalized training more often, and frequently “higher dollar” training.

Organizations that actively manage their leadership pipeline know that they need to identify, and invest in, their high-potential talent. By also incorporating the perspective of the people who make up your pipeline, you have the opportunity to maximize the return on your talent investment and accelerate the development of your leaders. 

Ready to Take the Next Step?

Invest in your high-potential talent with leadership development that helps them build critical leadership skills and organizational competencies. Learn more about our virtual leadership training programs for high-potential talent or how we can work with you to design a custom talent development solution tailored to your unique needs to help grow your organization into the future.

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