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BFS Capital Blog

Identifying and Developing High Potential Employees

September 11, 2013

You’ve heard it a million times before: It’s far more efficient and cost-effective to retain and develop your current employees than to have to recruit and hire new ones. But with every employee being different and performing at different levels, how do you realistically evaluate their potential and develop them accordingly?

The site, The New Talent Times, which offers strategies for building and managing today’s workforce, suggests identifying the “high potentials” vs. the “high performers” on your staff. These two descriptions may sound similar, but knowing the difference—and there are big differences—is the key to being able to see your employees clearly and objectively. Performance and potential aren’t mutually exclusive, and most people have a combination of both.

You probably know your high performers. They consistently exceed your expectations and always get the job done, regardless. But this doesn’t mean they’ll do as well in a different or higher-level job—or even that they would want to. With high potentials, on the other hand, they’ve demonstrated some initial aptitude and have future potential to make significant contributions to your business. But they’re difficult to identify. Their abilities in areas like change management or learning are overshadowed by the more obvious skills of high performers. And if you’re like most, you may not know how to identify and assess potential. It’s just a lot easier to look at performance.

Consultant Michelle Smith, who specializes in employee recognition, development and training, writes on the HR site,, that there’s a sure-fire way to engage your employees who you feel have high potential with your business: Don’t take them for granted! Smith says that owners and managers owe their employees the opportunity to feel good about what they’re doing and enjoy the time they spend working for you, as well as to be part of a work environment that nurtures their personal and professional development while they contribute to achieving your business goals.

Citing a CLC (Corporate Leadership Council) study that contends that a quarter of high-potential employees want to change companies in the next year, she lists six ways you develop employees to re-engage them:

    • Stimulate them with challenging work, recognition and growth opportunities.


    • Test them to evaluate their abilities, levels of engagement and future aspirations.


    • Manage them from a higher level where there’s more access to opportunities.


    • Challenge them so they can stretch and develop new skills.


    • Recognize them through differentiated compensation and other recognition tools.


    • Engage them in areas like strategic planning and future strategies for the business.

Contributor Victor Lipman writes on that business owners and managers ignore employee development at their own peril and refers to a recent Harvard Business Reviewstudy. Employees reported not getting much in the way of training, mentoring and coaching (which they value highly) and consequently, were pretty much in a non-stop job hunt. Lipman acknowledges that there are legitimate reasons for letting development fall by the wayside, like not having the time for it and needing to focus most on the here and now. But he also suggests that finding ways to fit in thoughtful employee development efforts is just good business sense:

    • Your people will genuinely care if you take a genuine interest in their futures.


    • Developing people builds loyalty, and loyalty builds productivity.


    • Good people want to advance and appreciate real support in getting there.

The best news of all? Lipman stresses that development doesn’t have to be elaborate or costly. It’s more a matter of good management: Taking one-on-one time to really get to know and understand your employees…their skills and needs…and providing them the guidance to fill in gaps. You’ll not only have the benefit of employees who are more skilled and more satisfied, but long-term loyalty will naturally follow.

Image courtesy of chanpipat /