‘Moving on up’ not always an option

Retaining high-potentials can be challenging when promotions aren’t available
By Liz Bernier
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 11/03/2014

Having high-potential employees in your leadership pipeline is a hot topic for HR professionals — but attracting and retaining them isn’t as easy as it may sound.


As the economy shows slow improvement, hiring activity begins to increase and turnover rates creep upward, many employers are experiencing difficulty finding — and keeping — high-potentials.


Many employers simply don’t have a strong understanding of why employees choose to stay with an organization, according to two surveys by Towers Watson that identified challenges around attracting and retaining employees. But that understanding is critically important — especially when it comes to high-potentials.


The Towers Watson Global Talent Management and Rewards survey of 1,637 companies found there have been increases in hiring activity — 48 per cent of respondents said hiring activity has increased since last year. However, 64 per cent reported trouble attracting high-potential employees and 56 per cent reported difficulty retaining high-potentials.


Many employers are simply missing the mark when it comes to career development, said Sandra McLellan, director of rewards, talent and communication at Towers Watson in Toronto.


“That’s on a couple of dimensions. One of them is in defining what career development means because it means different things to different people,” she said. “For a number of people, it might mean ‘When was the last time I got promoted?’ But, increasingly — and particularly for high-potential employees — it’s a question of ‘Do I feel like I’m learning? Do I feel like my job today is different than it was yesterday? Am I feeling challenged?’”


It’s important to have the conversation about what the individual employee’s aspirations are, according to Deb LaMere, vice-president of HR strategy and employee engagement at Ceridian in Minneapolis.


“Once you have identified them (as a high-potential) and you’ve let them know… it’s continually keeping them motivated and also talking to them about what their aspirations are,” she said. “You may identify them as high-potential, but what is it that they truly want to do and what are their career aspirations?”


Greener pastures?

Those conversations become even more important when managers consider that high-potentials are more likely to feel stuck, bored or “blocked” in their current positions — which could potentially drive them into the arms of another company.

The Towers Watson Global Workforce Study, which surveyed 32,000 employees, including more than 1,000 from Canada, found many employees — not just high-potentials — feel blocked in their current position.


Forty-one per cent said they would need to leave their organization in order to advance in their careers, and the same percentage of high-potentials also said the same.


“The biggest challenge is you have these people that you convince that they are special in some way. And then their expectations go up and when the expectations are not met, often they start considering other options,” said Igor Kotlyar, associate professor at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology in Toronto.


“As people move up in the organization, the number of opportunities diminishes. (But) people’s expectations are still high and they do expect to be given this special time and these promotional opportunities on a regular basis... and when the frequency of these opportunities diminishes, they often get disappointed and do start to look elsewhere.”


Feeling bored or stuck in their careers is a common risk for high-potentials, said Kotlyar.


“They do expect a certain amount of challenge and a certain amount of development to take place,” he said. “It comes down to managing expectations — I think that becomes the key. You don’t always have exciting opportunities (to offer) and you just have to make sure that there are these conversations that take place on a regular basis, and that everybody’s on the same page as to what’s possible and what’s likely to happen.”


Some employers may often see that tendency towards career boredom among millennials, said LaMere.


“They feel like they should be moving a lot quicker on their career path… so it’s about educating them,” she said. “To have them get out of feeling stuck or bored, at any generational level and in any company, let’s give them other options. If you’re in a position and there’s just not that space to advance… let’s look at what can you do in your own current job to help enhance your skills too.”

Employers can help mitigate feelings of boredom and pre-empt the urge to leave the organization in pursuit of a promotion, said Mary Haskins, regional vice-president and practice leader at Right Management in Denver.


“Some organizations have put in place actual programs where they’ve identified the high-potentials and they’ve put them through a program that gives them exposure to the various parts of the business — so that helps keep them engaged, but they’re also learning new parts of the business,” she said.


“Another thing that can be done is put in place, either formally or informally, mentoring with a senior-level person within the organization so they can gain not only exposure to those senior-level individuals, but also their insights.”


Motivating high-potentials to stay isn’t about just one factor, said McLellan — it’s about getting the whole package right.

“Career advancement always tops the chart… but the other drivers continue to be base pay and, surprisingly, job security. We might have in our mind that high-potentials are not concerned about job security, but it is something that’s on people’s minds,” she said, adding that leadership and direct managers can also be key retention drivers.


Promotions not the only option

Developing a high-potential is no longer just a question of when he’s up for his next promotion, said Haskins, since many careers no longer follow the traditional “climbing the ladder” trajectory.


“Nowadays, it isn’t necessarily moving straight up — it tends to be more of a lattice type of approach, where sometimes those advancements could be in a different department or part of the business. It’s not necessarily a vertical move, but more of a lateral move, where they’re gaining that additional experience,” she said. “So setting those expectations as to not only how quickly they’ll advance, but how they’ll advance is also important.”


Today, we have four different generations in the workforce simultaneously, said LaMere, so senior positions aren’t opening up as quickly as expected.


“Those vacancies that we thought were going to be there before we went into the recession, they’re not there quite yet,” she said. “Sometimes, a high-potential could be frustrated (by that)… If there’s not something that’s immediately in their career path, it’s talking to them about other things that are outside their main trajectory.


“What are other lateral moves that you could make in the organization that really expand the toolbox of your skills?”


That’s where the manager’s role comes into play because it will be up to them to be flexible and to determine how high-potentials can broaden and customize their experience, said McLellan.


And, in all of this, communication is key, said Haskins.


“It’s critical that with high-potentials that they’re identified, and that their managers are actually having conversations with them to say, ‘Look, you’ve been identified as a high-potential and here’s a developmental plan,’” she said.


“It’s really critical in several areas that there’s that communication that occurs — it’s not just something where the manager thinks they’re high-potential, but they actually have the conversation with the employee, and the employee is recognized or called out that they are a high-potential.”

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