3 ways to keep high-potential talent

Instead of looking for new ways, employers should revert to tried-and-true methods

High-potential employees have become a hot commodity. They’re getting the job done today and they’re in line to fill key leadership positions tomorrow as the exodus of the baby boomers from the workplace begins. With the war for talent most certainly here to stay, competition for these future stars is heating up.

But how can employers ensure they keep these valued workers on board, engaged and ready to take over, when the most desired positions aren’t open yet? The answer comes not in trying to find the hottest “best practices” to engage employees but in rekindling three “best principles” that have stood the test of time and apply in virtually every company and every industry.

These “best principles” were discovered decades ago, but have yet to undergo the dramatic repackaging and rebranding that so many of the soundest, and simplest, HR principles have undergone.

Go back to basics of 1976 to find sound principles

Although it sounds simple enough, employers often don’t look back to the literary gold that researchers Richard Hackman and Greg Oldham created in 1976 with the publication of Job Characteristics Model. In it, they describe three psychological states critical to high-potential employees (which, back then, were called employees with a “high need for growth”):

• experienced meaningfulness;

• experienced accountability and control; and

• feedback on results.

The authors also describe several job characteristics that foster the emergence of these three psychological states:

• skill variety — using a number of different talents in a number of different activities;

• task identity — completing a whole task from beginning to end with a visible outcome versus only participating on a piece of the work or project;

• task significance — tasks that have a significant and identifiable impact on the lives or work of other people or external environment;

• autonomy — a sense of control and discretion over how an employee executes her work; and

• feedback loops — consistent flow of information to allow an employee to adjust, amend and learn.

It is easy to find examples of how major companies have leveraged these principles to engage the best employees:

• auto manufacturers using task identity by having high-potential employees supervise the assembly of whole cars versus just car parts;

• major retailers using task significance by mandating new managers spend a specific amount of time in-store, relating to customers and connecting with the brand;

• construction and mining companies using skill variety by taking promising young engineers and exposing them to different functional units in the organization; and

• consulting companies using autonomy by allowing workers to work virtually and structure their own hours.

The lesson here is to go back to what high-potentials need from their jobs and find creative ways to give them these experiences. Although those creative ways can be tough to identify, and an even tougher sell to management, the blueprint for what must underlie those experiences is fairly clear.

Provide high potentials with great managers

Scores of research over the years has pointed toward the idea that people assess their fit with an organization based on their experience with their manager. Anecdotally, this notion is backed up through the popularity of the phrase “people quit their managers.”

Indeed, exposing high-potentials to bad managers is something to be wary of. The implication here is too much effort goes into developing programs and learning experiences that will delight high-potentials without integrating the manager into the equation.

Equal effort needs to be spent on making sure the internal managerial support is there to capitalize on the learning experiences high-potentials undertake.

Give and you shall receive

Another age-old principle that can easily be made real to retain and engage high-potentials is to simply dedicate time and effort toward their development.

Essentially, this is the timeless norm of reciprocity. If you give a person something that satisfies her needs, whether she wants to or not she will feel more obliged to make efforts on your behalf. This principle is paramount to any negotiation, which ultimately represents the nature of the psychological contract that an employee forms with her organization.

Examples of ways to leverage the norm of reciprocity include: participation in high-potential development programs; specific and actionable developmental plans and ongoing coaching support; and mentoring and exposure to company executives.

Often, even without a specifically identified succession plan or available position, a high-potential will stay with a company because it is essentially providing what she desires most — meaningfulness and development.

The key to leveraging the reciprocity principle is to make genuine efforts that involve consistent messaging from senior executives and policy makers. Advantageously, such efforts also speak well to the recent demographic changes the workplace has seen.

Generational research abounds that speaks to the entitlement mentality and increased importance Generations X and Y place on “partnering” with the organizations they work for.

High-potential employees are thinking more and more about what they can get from an organization versus what they can provide. Efforts are thus well spent on designing programs that offer the kinds of support and opportunities the newer generations demand.

Though deceptively simple and straightforward, these three principles are really at the heart of many of the best strategies used to retain and engage high-potentials. Clearly, these principles suggest a lesson employers consistently relearn: The old is new again and has never really gone away.

Henryk Krajweski is vice-president and national practice leader, consulting services, at Right Management in Toronto. He can be reached at (888) 926-1324 ext. 249 or [email protected]

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