Cultivating Your High Potentials with Recognition

March 11, 2013 Darcy Jacobsen

Business Professionals


Let me get this out of the way first and say that you should effectively manage, identify, recognize and reward ALL of your employees. That said, there is no question that an effective strategy for identifying and developing your “high potential” employees—aka, Hi-Pos—is important to organizational success. In fact, a Bersin report from last year showed that organizations with advanced high-potential strategies were 7 times more effective at improving their business results.

There are different definitions of “high potential” out there, but they all boil down to a simple premise: some employees have stand-out levels of talent and achievement. They hold the potential to achieve great things. They could become great leaders in your company, and will likely be officially promoted into those roles before long. And we want to harness their abilities.

Here’s a list of traits Inc magazine considers fundamental to a high potential:

  • They know the business.
  • Others respect them.
  • They are ambitious.
  • They work well with others.
  • They have guts.

But this is the sticking point. In every assessment I’ve seen about this dynamic and critical group of employees, the same three challenges are identified:

  1. How do we identify them?
  2. How do we develop and nurture them?
  3. How do we motivate and retain them?

Not surprisingly, employee recognition is a terrific way of doing all of these things. It gives us those deep insights into talent and culture that naturally identifies the employees that most drive our success, and then works to keep them aligned with that success.

Spot High Potentials with Recognition

One of the trickiest and most subjective pieces to the Hi-Po puzzle is figuring out who they are. Relying on managers to spot this group can be dicey, because managers themselves may not be fully attuned. If we look at the Inc. Magazine list of high potential traits, above, you can see that two of the five traits speak specifically to how this group interacts with their peers. They work well with and command the respect of peers.  It is for this reason that peer feedback provides us with the most honest and crucial insight into who really has that high potential. By observing who is recognized for excellence and leadership by the employees who witness it every day, you get an unbiased and incisive look into who is really driving your success.

Develop High Potentials with Recognition

Recognition is only one tool in the development arsenal, but it can be a differentiating one. It is important to show ambitious Hi-Po’s that they are being groomed for success and to make them feel like they are growing their skills. And it is as important to help them be successful in living and practicing your company values. Recognition lets high potentials measure their success in doing that, and gives them a strong sense of how their behavior is mapping to company values and goals. That consistent positive feedback from managers and peers keeps them on track and inspires them to reach even higher as they grow.

Motivate and Retain High Potentials with Recognition

High potentials are usually well aware of their value, and, as Inc points out above, they are usually ambitious and bold. That means they are some of the employees most likely to jump ship if they feel unrewarded or under-appreciated. Recognition and reward is a key way to keep these employees, because it satisfies their ambition to excel and it validates and publicly celebrates their successes. Studies have shown that recognized employees stick around.  Moreover, these employees are acutely aware that they have a choice where they work, and this makes company culture important to them. A company that differentiates itself with a robust program for employee appreciation is a company that is appealing to employees who are hungry to succeed.

So if attracting, identifying and keeping high potentials is part of your plan for success, consider carefully the important role that recognition and recognition data can play.

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