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How to spot high-potential employees—and how to keep them

Unwanted turnover is the universal dread of managers and HR departments everywhere, regardless of industry. No one wants to spend valuable time and resources training a new employee only to have that person walk out the door a few months later.

But this is especially true when it comes to employees with great potential—the ones who were genuinely contributing to growth, the ones who could have conceivably taken on leadership positions.

These employees are called high-potential employees (HIPOs), and while every company has them, not every company knows how to recognize them. When an organization is lacking a system to leverage and invest in the value HIPOs have to offer, it runs the risk of losing them to the phenomenon known as “browning out.”

Having coined the term, Michael Kibler of Harvard Business Review explains that workers who are experiencing “brownout” usually don’t show any signs that they’re in crisis. Although these employees continue to perform at high levels, in reality, they’re “operating in a silent state of continual overwhelm” where “the predictable consequence is disengagement.”

Needless to say, the most successful businesses take steps to ensure they’re retaining these kind of employees, and HR professionals can be instrumental to this process. But to appropriately harness the power of HIPOs, you need to know who they are. So, how do you identify HIPOs in the first place?

Recognizing Your HIPOs

According to CEB Inc., a global research and advisory company, recognizing a HIPO boils down to a balance of three key factors: aspiration, ability and engagement.

  1. Aspiration

Basically, HIPO employees have to want it.

High-potential employees need to have the ambition and desire to move up in the company. They can be your top performer, but if they don’t have the inner drive to move into a more influential role and have a greater impact on the organization, they may not be with you in the long-run, regardless of your efforts to keep them.

  1. Ability

This means going beyond the job description. True HIPOs are able to balance performance and humanity—the ability to achieve goals, while still embodying a sense of people-to-people connectivity. An individual too focused on performance can certainly drive results, but while they hit goals and perform well, they could also rate low in terms of leadership effectiveness.

HIPOs are able to deliver on set performance goals, while inspiring others around them to do the same.

  1. Engagement

Employee engagement is a popular topic today—and for good reason. Engagement is contagious and can have a direct impact on performance, which means that disengagement can, too. Individuals who are engaged at work focus on solutions, communicate clearly, and are friendly and encouraging, being an overall positive influence on others.

Getting ahead of brownout

While HIPOs tend to be engaged at work, understanding their engagement levels is critical when it comes to keeping them engaged. For instance, while an attractive benefits package might seem like the best way to retain employees, research by UK-based recruitment firm Robert Half UK shows that employees were more likely to leave a company for better work-life balance, rather than benefits.

It’s important to keep this in mind when a great employee abruptly leaves, as the same question is often asked: “What more could we have done?”

First, understand that you won’t be able to keep every employee. It’s neither realistic nor reasonable. Brownout is challenging, as it’s not easily noticeable, and since employees leave companies for any number of reasons, it isn’t necessarily a sign of poor culture. However, it does present an opportunity to better understand your employees’ needs and motivation for contributing at work.

This responsibility rests with your managers—from the C-suite down to mid-level managers. It’s their job to foster trust and create an environment that encourages people to stay. To do so, managers need to embrace “the 3 Rs”—three elements that have the greatest impact on employee engagement:

  • Respect: Respect the employee for who they are and what they do;
  • Relevance: Help them see the meaning in their work; and
  • Relationship: Foster positive relationships with coworkers, especially direct managers.

Using the 3 Rs as a base, there are a few steps that can be taken to build the right environment to nurture HIPOs:

  • Identify your HIPOs and let them know that they’re on the company’s radar. If you have an official leadership role or succession plan for them in mind, start a conversation about it.
  • Build relationships: Learn what their objectives are, whether career-oriented or personal, and find out how the path you envision for them can align with their own aspirations.
  • Acknowledge the good work they do through consistent recognition, so they understand what they’re doing well (others will learn as a result, too!) and encourage employees to recognize and celebrate each other’s significant accomplishments as well.
  • Keep lines of communication open, so moments where brownout might be occurring can be resolved.
  • Keep in mind that while you might accomplish all of these, the reality is that all companies lose good people eventually. So when the unavoidable does happen, take steps to ensure it doesn’t affect the rest of your employees:
  • Provide them with an experience they’ll talk positively about;
  • Do whatever you can, particularly from an HR standpoint, to support their decision; and
  • Create an exit interview process to gain accurate feedback on the decision to leave.

The most valuable takeaway when it comes to preventing brownout is that it’s about sustaining your employee base, making employees feel valued and respected, and doing whatever needs to be done to get managers to take direct action on the issue. Engaged employees are a company’s most valuable asset, so it should always be a priority to create an environment that encourages the team to give it their all, for however long they’re with you.

Gregg Lederman, CEO of Brand Integrity, is a professional speaker on the customer experience, leadership and culture change. He is an adjunct professor at University of Rochester’s Simon Business School and the author of the New York Times best-selling book “Engaged!: Outbehave Your Competition to Create Customers for Life.” Read more from Gregg at

(c) 2017 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-363-7269 or email [email protected].


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