High-Performer or High-Potential?

Aug 29, 2012

This week we have a guest blog by Kyle Lagunas, HR Analyst at Software Advice. Enjoy!

In a time when the workforce is increasingly transient, your ability to identify high-performing and high-potential employees—and that of your managers—is critical. And yet, many struggle to distinguish one from the other, negatively impacting their ability to develop and retain top talent. In many organizations, performance is the primary measure of an employee’s value in the organization. Star performers are promoted and rewarded, while diamonds in the rough become disengaged and move on.

Don’t get me wrong–you should definitely value performance. But if your end goal is to build a more robust talent pipeline (and it should be), performance can’t be the only point of entry. To that end, there are strategies that any manager can apply to develop high-potentials and high-performers effectively.

Step One: Identify

High-performers stand out in any organization. They consistently exceed expectations, and are management’s go-to for difficult projects. They take pride in their accomplishments, but may not have the potential (or the desire) to succeed in a higher-level role.

High potentials can be more difficult to identify, especially for line managers. That’s because most valuable attributes (e.g. stress management, adaptability, business sense) aren’t catalytic in entry-to-mid-level roles. Potential is subjective to what a company values, of course, but there are innate attributes that distinguish them from high-performers.

Line managers’ observations are often limited to the most obvious traits (time management, communication skills, attention to detail). By working with leadership, however, managers can profile the skills that ensure success in key roles—and be on the lookout for examples of both high performers and high potentials from day one.

Step Two: Assess

An established standard of the attributes and competencies of model employees is also an essential part of objective assessment. And though there’s a distinct difference between potential and performance, experts agree that employees should be assessed on competency in both.

Each category requires a different development strategy. With a clearer picture of who falls where, managers can make more informed decisions in how to effectively develop them. For example: High Po/ Low Per employees may need to improve their ability to perform consistently, or may be moved into roles better aligned with their natural abilities. And High Per/Low Po employees would be ideal candidates for soft skill development–or for roles that require more technical skill.

Step Three: Engage and Develop

The important thing about development and engagement strategies (especially for high-potential vs. high-performance employees) is to tailor your efforts to drive the results you want. Typical engagement strategies could look something like this:

Recognition is key for High Per/Low Po employees. They need constant encouragement and challenging assignments. Rather than promoting them to roles they don’t want (or aren’t ready for), give them the independence and engage them with projects that they can take full ownership of.

Alternately, while High Po/Low Per employees are hungry for more high-impact work, they need seasoning. On the job training is a great way to accomplish this, especially when pairing them with high performers. As they develop a stronger understanding of the organization and their role in it, give them projects to manage, new hires to train, and offer cross-training opportunities.

Set Your Line Managers Up for Success

Your line managers are the gatekeepers to your talent pipeline, and they’ve got their work cut out for them. While most will have some natural ability in identifying, assessing, and engaging performers and potentials, few will be adept at all three. If you want to improve your ability to retain top talent, it starts with your line managers. Set them up for success, and invest in their development.


About the Author: Kyle Lagunas is the HR Analyst at Software Advice—an online resource for HR software comparisions. He reports on trends, technology, and best practices in talent management, with work featured on Forbes, Business Insider, Information Weekly, and the NY Times.


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