Helping stars play the waiting game

Keep top talent engaged or risk losing them while they wait for a senior position to open up

As boomers stay in the workplace longer, and gen-Y bubbles up from below, there is a growing concern: Where is there room for top talent in an ever-narrowing range of senior positions? And what can managers do to satisfy the demand for more challenges and influence when the supply of jobs at the next level doesn’t exist?

Demographic pressures, downsizing and — as we emerge from the recession — permanently restructured workplaces have combined to dry up what was an already limited number of opportunities at the top.

There’s no question organizations need to be creative to keep top talent. One company that provides innovative growth opportunities for top performers is Husky Injection Molding Systems, a Bolton, Ont.-based plastics equipment and services supplier with more than 3,200 employees worldwide.

“For Husky, managing top talent is a corporate initiative and high priority, and part of the organization’s overall strategy. We emphasize to our top performers that they can gain as much credibility by leading a major project or initiative as they can by taking on a job one layer up,” says Peter Neufeld, global leader of organizational development at Husky.

These initiatives help employees establish some of the relationships they’ll need at the next level, he says. They also increase loyalty when employees know they are growing, are seen as valuable and have options, says Neufeld.

Eighty per cent of HR leaders say a lack of career development opportunities was the primary reason for voluntary employee departures, according to Knightsbridge Human Capital Solutions’ 2010 Career Management Survey, which looked at responses from 244 HR professionals and leaders.

This attrition comes with significant costs. Losing even 10 per cent of top talent means losing a critical piece of an organization’s future. When the brain drain occurs among high-potentials, many of whom have been groomed for senior positions for some time, the cost is not just one of lost opportunity but also of investment.

Added to that are replacement and retraining costs, and the softer, but still significant, impact of losing institutional knowledge, team morale, client relationships and market or industry profile.

There are numerous strategies to keep top talent engaged and prepared for the next step up, while also developing and retaining leadership capacity in the organization:

Establish a structured process for leadership and career development. Set the expectation that managers will meet with high-potential employees to hold structured career conversations. During those conversations, managers need to be transparent and candid about what can and cannot be done and set a realistic plan with clear timelines and measures of success.

Ensure managers have the training and tools to coach high performers. Often, managers are reluctant to communicate with employees about their opportunities and development plan, not because the opportunities are scarce (or they don’t know what they are) but because they don’t know how to even start the dialogue.

Turn high performance into high engagement. Engagement requires a deeper understanding of individual motivators and needs. Coaching conversations are useful to both the individual and the organization to uncover information about an employee’s motivations, goals and aspirations — information essential to shape concrete leadership development plans that drive engagement.

Help employees develop their brand. While the concept of an individual employment brand has become a bit passé, it might be surprising to know how few high-potentials have the core skills and knowledge to effectively raise their own profile within an organization. Managers should help employees articulate their value proposition, then use it to expand their networking opportunities, seek formal or informal mentoring and have strategic conversations to promote their own career interests.

Provide new experiences for top talent. Engage top talent in experiences that broaden and deepen their abilities and business exposure. Consider lateral moves or stretch assignments that are project-based and have organization-wide impact. Large-scale implementations, mergers and acquisitions or new product or service ventures are some examples of projects that can stretch ability and exposure.

Develop feedback processes. Feedback should help top talent gain insight into how they are seen by key stakeholders in the business. Help them understand how they can demonstrate leadership behaviour in their current role, which peers (future direct reports) and superiors (future peers) would see as appropriate and effective at the next level.

Offer top talent access to executives. This access could include executive strategy or brainstorming sessions, C-level discussions and exclusive internal blogs or forums. In short, give rising stars the chance to contribute to an organization’s big challenges. Engaging their egos and minds helps stretch the thinking and perspectives that go into an organization’s approach to winning in its marketplace.

Create a development plan with top performers. The plan should align an employee’s objectives with business needs, while helping him stay engaged. Be specific about time frames and accomplishments, and be clear there is no guarantee of a position — but learning will increase effectiveness.

Helping high performers expand their skills through new challenges — especially when roles are scarce one or two rungs up the ladder — is an effective attrition mitigation strategy that increases organizational loyalty.

Arming individuals with the tools they need to manage their own development not only prepares future leaders for the next opportunity when it opens up, it also keeps them engaged, productive and building leadership capacity while they wait.

Carlo Bos is a Mississauga, Ont.-based senior consultant of leadership solutions at Knightsbridge Human Capital Solutions. He can be reached at (905) 277-7336. Tracy Cocivera is a Toronto-based senior consultant of leadership solutions at Knightsbridge Human Capital Solutions. She can be reached at (416) 928-4639. For more information, visit

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