Train to Retain: How to Develop High-Potential Employees to Keep Them

Employee retention is essential for companies looking to build their businesses and boost their bottom lines. But retention alone isn’t the secret of success. High-potential employees who are in line to move up through the ranks of management need to be nurtured, trained and developed. As high-potential employees advance, they will be the ones to mentor and groom yet another generation of your company’s leaders.

High-potential employees are highly motivated to grow, develop and advance, and if you don’t take steps to meet these needs, they’re likely to seek work with companies that will. These employees are the ones who will create the innovations and systems that will propel your business through the coming decades, so it’s essential to your company’s future to help them advance their skills and their careers — and to give them reasons to stay with you as they do. Your investment in your employees’ futures can make your company the place to work and secure a line of succession in upper management as baby boomers retire.

This white paper will explain how to identify high-potential employees, why it’s necessary to continually train these workers and what types of training you should be offering.

Identify High-Potential Employees

Recognizing the high-potential employees in your company is the first step toward grooming them for upper-management positions. “ ‘High-potential’ indicates that a person has the runway for growth, that they can likely move up, over and around the company successfully, and over time, lead larger and more complex parts of the business,” says Linda Brenner of HR consulting firm Designs on Talent. It’s essential to fill your leadership pipeline with talented people who can easily and effectively take the reins when the time comes.

Before identifying your high-potential talent, you must clearly define what “high-potential” means to your company in the context of its industry and culture — and you must do so with transparency. When your selection criteria and measurement standards aren’t clear to all employees, even those identified as high potential are more likely to become confused and move on to other companies, according to a survey by the American Management Association. Employees need to trust their that bosses are consistent and fair, whether they’re tapped as high-potential or not.

Once you’ve defined “high-potential,” you need to put a system in place for assessing and identifying your company’s most competent workers and those most likely to lead it into the future. What characteristics does a high-potential employee possess? You should recognize the knowledge base, skills and abilities you’re looking for, Brenner says. Look at employee data in areas such as results, performance, compensation, feedback and team engagement to uncover top performers.

Traditional methods of determining which employees are top performers are no longer effective in today’s workplace, says Emad Rahim, chief learning officer at Global i365. “We used to consider someone working long hours at work, willingness to do overtime and never taking sick days as a sign of their dedication, loyalty and commitment. That litmus test by which Baby Boomers were judged should not be the same measurement of job performance for Generation X and Millennials.”

While it’s important to take employees’ generational differences into account, it’s also necessary to understand your company’s culture. For example, high-potential employees will be measured differently at Google than at General Motors because of the nature of their jobs and the companies’ different strategies, Rahim says.

When seeking out high-potential employees within their ranks, companies should look for people who contribute innovative and creative ideas, Rahim says. Look for the ones who create new products, services and methodologies that add value to the business and make it more competitive.

Grooming High-Potentials in Today’s Business Environment

The traditional career ladder has changed, says Susan Bender Phelps of Odyssey Mentoring and Leadership. Baby Boomers put in long hours and moved up through management over time. However, layoffs, downsizing and shifting organizational structures have left far fewer middle-management positions, shrinking the pool of employees in the position to move up through traditional channels. Additionally, Phelps says, as Baby Boomers in upper management retire, there will be fewer employees to replace them, so grooming future leaders is even more important.

The new generation of workers has different criteria for measuring a happy career life than their older counterparts do. Millennials say workplace flexibility and professional-development opportunities are critical to their employment success, Rahim says. “This new workforce generation cares more about their quality of life than their salary. Companies need to create more flexible working conditions to sustain the happiness of the millennial workforce.”

One-size-fits-all training programs won’t be as effective for grooming today’s younger workers, so companies must tailor their mentoring and development programs to match their employees’ values. Use the Millennials’ desire for professional development as an opportunity to mentor and nurture those in your leadership pipeline, Rahim says.

It Takes More Than Onboarding

Onboarding is the first step, and an important one, because it allows employees to get comfortable with the work environment, understand procedures and become acquainted with the company’s culture. However, onboarding alone is insufficient for developing long-term leaders.

Look at your company’s retention numbers, and perhaps perform an employee survey to gain insight into your business’ ability to develop and nurture its high-potential workers. One in four companies are failing to keep their high-potentials, according to the AMA survey. Many companies also only intermittently offer training programs, a practice that delivers mixed results. Good onboarding boosts employee satisfaction in the short term, but companies need ongoing strategies to achieve long-term results.

Onboarding coupled with mentoring is a good start. “Sink or swim does not provide the organization or the high-potentials with the environment they need to succeed and grow,” Phelps says. It’s critical to have a solid mentoring program that promotes the transfer of knowledge and skills and is designed to help these employees grow, learn and thrive.

“Mentoring programs have been historically weak because many companies used them to fulfill diversity goals with no real path to advancement built in,” she says. “Or they created programs without training both the mentees and mentors to be effective in a mentoring partnership.” An effective mentoring program benefits both mentors and mentees, and creates an environment of learning, support, advancement and success.

Types of Training to Offer

Proper management of high-potentials not only improves employee satisfaction but also boosts business performance. Your company’s growth can signal how well it’s nurturing its best talent, and effective training programs can improve its bottom line.

Training your high-potential employees shouldn’t be a one-time event. Ongoing programs such as mentoring, online training and cross-training can all be successful, says David Bakke, columnist for Money Crashers.

Plenty of open communication also is a must, Bakke says. “Companies should communicate with high-potential employees in a timely fashion to ensure their development needs are being met. Include them in meetings about growth and ask for their feedback.” Transparency is a key element in all stages of choosing and grooming your high-potentials. Keep them in the loop and listen to what they have to say.

High-potential employees need to be continually challenged, and formal development plans should be in place to keep them from getting bored. Offer opportunities for them to showcase their knowledge and abilities, says Sarah Thompson, a consultant at Intrepid Learning. These employees need greater challenges, and stretch assignments — tasks that may be a little above their experience level — are good ways to provide them. You might also consider training these employees in other areas so they can learn and build expertise in a variety of aspects of the business.

If costs allow, there are a variety of institutions that offer training and seminars that employers can tap into. Rahim suggests the Center for Creative Leadership, the Human Capital Institute and the AMA, and says more affordable options also may be available through local chapters of the Society of Human Resource Management and the Project Management Institute.

Some organizations may also offer free online tutorials, but not everyone will find online training effective, Rahim says. The best development programs are diverse and tailored to fit both the company’s and its employees’ needs.


With proper recognition and nurturing of high-potential employees, a company can help to ensure its future growth and success. Retaining high-potential employees will not only secure the company’s management future, but also will help retain other workers. Employees — high-potential or not — will feel a stronger sense of dedication to their jobs if they feel their employer is dedicating resources to their futures as well as the company’s.

Companies must identify specific areas where they need top talent, and then target employees that fit their definition of high-potential. More than ever, companies need to tailor development programs in a way that will boost these high-potential employees and meet their needs for career satisfaction.

A one-time plan for a high-potential employee’s future at your company isn’t enough. If you aren’t continually motivating, training and grooming your high-potentials, they will find a company that will. Competitors are working to recruit your best employees, so ensure you’re working just as hard to retain them.

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