Tips for Preventing High-Potential Poaching

September 12, 2019

Tips for Preventing High-Potential Poaching

Most of us have heard of the 80/20 Pareto Principle, which when applied to your workforce means that 80 percent of the responsibility and work are shouldered by only 20 percent of your employees. Those are today’s high performers.

And while statistics vary depending on the source, the pool of high-potential employees—traditionally identified as those who have the ability to perform at least two levels above their current role—is even smaller. 

In today’s incredibly tight labor market, keeping those high potentials in your organization is harder than ever. Many employers fall short when it comes to effectively nurturing and engaging them. As a result, many of these top employees fail to reach their full potential and quickly get poached by a competitor who today can easily find them via artificial intelligence (AI) and social media tools.

With competition for top talent at an all-time high, it’s critical that HR professionals and managers are strategic and measured in creating programs that identify, develop, and engage their most promising future leaders.

Where to Begin?
The first step in developing a successful high-potential development program is to accurately identify who truly belongs in the program. Many employers struggle with this, as data published recently in Harvard Business Review found that nearly 40 percent of individuals in high-potential programs may not necessarily be qualified to be in this elite pool. 

It’s crucial to understand the distinction between high performance and high potential. Performance evaluates how effective an employee is in his or her current role, while potential measures a person’s future capacity to be successful in a more challenging role while applying their abilities, drivers, and past experiences.

Traditionally, HR and line managers would choose high-potential talent based on their current performance, but that’s only part of the puzzle. 

Employers may start with this information but will need to work harder to identify employees with true potential. This is based on in-depth assessments. For example, using four dimensions of talent, including what the person does—competencies and experiences—and who the person is—their traits and drivers—can be a good selection method. 

Leverage Employee Engagement Data in Nontraditional Ways
Once the high-potential talent has been identified, it’s time to determine the motivational drivers for each person in the program. 

Every employee is driven by different factors, depending on certain variables such as career and life stage, personality profile, and job role—to name a few. Some are motivated by pay and benefits, for example, while others value authority, learning opportunities, sabbaticals, or participation in special projects. 

Many organizations rely on anonymous engagement surveys to identify these motivational drivers and gather feedback about how employees feel about their jobs, their bosses, and the company culture. However, these one-size-fits all approaches aggregate low-performer feedback with high-performer feedback, making it impossible to identify the specific drivers for pivotal employees. 

When engagement feedback is attributed to a given employee, HR leaders can pinpoint individual drivers and give talented workers exactly what they need so they don’t run off to the competition. 

Take a Personalized Approach to Employee Engagement
In addition to mining survey data, it’s important for HR managers to have in-person discussions with high-potential employees.

Our experience tells us that leaders in high-performing companies spend more time having face-to-face conversations with top employees to identify their engagement drivers than low-performing companies do. 

Still, career experts have found that most organizations lack a highly personalized approach to finding out what different people value. 

It’s important to make a point to ask your high potentials how they feel about their current role and what kind of training, development, or rewards they need to feel more connected to their work. 

A defense organization, for example, recently expressed concern that it was only a matter of time before its top operations leader would be poached by the competition. When asked what it would take to keep him around, the employee said he’d be happy to continue managing operations if he could take long weekends in the fall to attend football games at his college alma mater. The company was happy to allow this, knowing it was well worth the investment to retain one of its strongest leaders.

Many career experts agree that organizations should heavily tilt their engagement strategies toward the most pivotal employees. After all, when the high potentials begin to check out, or worse, leave the business altogether, the organization may take a huge hit—financially, operationally, and culturally. 

Giving high potentials what they need—whether it’s more money, new challenges, or simply the flexibility to watch more football come September—is a small price to pay to keep your highest contributors engaged and motivated.

The Authors: 

RJ Heckman, Ph.D., is Korn Ferry Vice Chairman and author of Talent Manifesto: How Disrupting Talent Strategies Maximizes Business Results.