talentAs organisations battled through a tough economy of recent years, there was a growing trend in focusing on retaining and developing the top talent in the business.

The strategy behind this was perhaps understandable: an organisation will be led by these high potentials through difficult times and on into an era of growth.
And as the economy begins to move forward, this subject is increasingly appearing in the HR community as professionals look at new ways to attract and retain high potentials (HiPo’s). However, while the rewards of this approach might be obvious, there are risks of focusing on these individuals which we need to consider.

So what are the risks and rewards of identifying high potentials?
Levels of attrition
A key issue which many HR professionals are struggling with at the moment is retaining HiPo’s following a development programme. Where an individual may be identified for a future leadership role, it’s impossible to guarantee they will remain with the company for the duration of their training, leaving the organisation minus a member of staff and with a potential talent gap. Given the increasing focus companies worldwide have on attracting top talent, this competition for HiPo’s is set to increase in the very near future.

There is of course the option to hide a person’s HiPo status from the individual themselves, but this is perhaps a futile option. Considering these individuals are the best and brightest in the business, they are likely to be fully aware that they are good at what they do. And should they feel they are not progressing, it’s highly likely they will look for opportunities elsewhere.

Changing leadership qualities

In a constantly changing environment, there is of course the risk that the role a HiPo aims to reach will evolve. Lessons learnt from the financial sector over the past few years have taught us that the profile of future leaders may well look different from those of the past.
With this in mind, it’s important that HR professionals look at both a wider talent pool and at the less tangible qualities of a leader such as adaptability, resilience and learning agility.

Potential ‘derailers’

Ironically there are qualities indicative of high performers which can also signal possible performance problems. When you consider a common profile of leadership potential, it’s perhaps fair to say the key characteristics include; strong intellect, drive and the ability to overcome obstacles to achieve ambitious goals.
However, it is these same behaviours which can cause potential disruptions. In order to avoid any potential derailing, the hard-driving, risk-embracing approach must be balanced with intrapersonal skills – such as self-awareness and control – and interpersonal skills – such as developing and maintaining strong relationships.

Negative perceptions by the team

Any high potential scheme can have a level of controversy surrounding it and it’s important that HR professionals take a sensitive approach. There is a risk of creating an internal class system where individuals feel they are labelled as ‘high potential’ or ‘no potential’, which in turn could lead to a negative impact on motivation and team support. If the scheme is perceived to be categorising people in this fashion, employees who are passed over or deprived of progress may even leave. This paradoxically leads to problems with turnover that the high potential scheme is designed to avoid.

Managing the risk for a successful scheme

There will always be an element of risk involved in any talent strategy, but these factors should not deter HR professionals from implementing a high potential scheme. At the end of the day, when identifying and developing talent, businesses must remember that employees are not simply commodities. And while there is no one-size-fits all solution, the secret to balancing these positives and negatives of HiPo identification and development is careful management of the risks identified above. And remember, a team is only a strong as its weakest link, so don’t forget the rest of your talent.

 About Seren Trewavas