Telling High Potential Employees That They’re High Potential

One of the cool things about writing at FOT is that I get to meet tons of folks from around the country. I often get questions from those awesome HR pros…tells me that all of us are trying to figure out this talent game and make a difference. The question below that came up a few weeks ago is one of my favorites.

R. J., should we tell people we labeled “High-Potentials” that they are, in fact, “High-Potentials?”

It’s an old question with no simple answer, and not just because it can drive great engagement when done well…and massive head pain when it isn’t. No, the reason why it is a great question is that it’s more about the Talent function than it is the High-Pot. It’s you, baby, not me.

Here’s the take: If you tell, it’s because you’ve evolved your Talent program to where you can answer two critical follow-up questions:

  1. From the high-pot: “So what?”
  2. From the non-high pot: “How do I become a high-pot?”

Companies that don’t tell people they’re high-pots are usually still evolving their overall talent and L&D programs. Those companies have enough talent review processes to label people, but not enough transparency or structure to explain the program—assessment, training, access and evaluation—and they’re scared to death of generating entitlement.

In these shops, they cannot move swiftly enough to engage high-pots after they tell them, and they shroud the program in mystery when the outsiders want into the program. It’s all a secret.

Korn Ferry (not a sponsor of FOT, but maybe they should be) had a solid overview of an approach where you tell a high-pot that she or he has been nominated for a high-potential program—it cuts out the entitlement and promises re-evaluation. I dig this. Here’s their suggested way to discuss the program:

…. (the) high-potential program is part of a larger process to review talent on a regular, usually annual, basis. Business situations continually change. Your organization’s need for leadership talent may shift due to economic conditions, mergers and acquisitions, growth, new strategic direction, and other factors. The supply of leadership talent will change as you hire new people, and as you see how well people develop and perform across a variety of situations. All of this affects current and future leadership gaps that underlie the need for a high-potential program, as well as the requirements and expectations that you have for such a program.

As my old boss would say, “That explanation even has the benefit of being true.” Look, every shop has their own constraints and reasons for telling or not telling. I get it. Like when find yourself in the car digging on a Nickelback or Florida-Georgia Line song, it’s complicated. However, thinking through this and talking about what it would take for your shop to go transparent is a really good measure of where you are in your team’s evolution.

FOT Note: This rant is brought to you by the good folks at OutMatch who like us enough to be an annual sponsor at FOT for all content in our Talent Selection and Employee Development track (and don’t expect that we run any of this by them ahead of time). 

FOT Background Check

RJ Morris
R. J. Morris is based in the STL as the Director of Talent Acquisition and Management for McCarthy Building Companies, a multi-billion dollar national firm. Like many others in the FOT clan, he’s a sports nut who can endlessly draw the parallels between athletes, sports and the talent management game. I know, I know, as if we needed more of that. He has 10 years of practitioner experience leading talent efforts in corporate HR and another 7 years in leadership roles on the agency side, so he gets both sides of the desk. Talk to R.J. via emailLinkedInTwitter...

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