The Fortune 500 companies and other large employers have quite sophisticated programs for what to do with high potential, or high performing, employees. For small and medium businesses, it really boils down to how to treat high potential employees differently. And it’s often simply small, subtle things you can do.
Everyone is not a high performer and that’s OK. You want to have solid, steady, core citizens and you want to keep them engaged just as much as you want to keep your high performers engaged. Your goal for high-performers is to find ways to challenge them while your goal for core employees is to motivate them.
But if you reward everybody the same, you’ll get everyone performing at the same level. Over time the high performers will say ‘why should I work so hard?’
If you don’t recognize and reward your high potentials, they’ll go where they will be rewarded. You want to do everything you can to retain them in recognition of the value they bring to the business. When you treat high potential employees differently, others see that and often, will aspire to a higher level of performance. In this way, over time, you’re always moving the performance bell curve higher.
How to Treat High Potential Employees Differently
While your high-performers often know they’re high-performers, you should formally acknowledge to them that you view them as high potential. They’re twice as likely to leave if you don’t.
Once you’ve identified them, have a conversation and share what that means and what your hopes are for them. A main goal of that conversation is to come up with a clear path. High-performers want to know where they can go and when they can get there. Without a clear path, they’re more likely to go where there is one.
Here are ways to incentivize and treat high potential employees differently:
- Ask for their advice and input
- Involve them in decisions
- Give more freedom and flexibility in how the work gets done
- Pay them at the higher end of the pay range
- Give challenging developmental opportunities
- Give frequent recognition
- Give promotions
- Give special projects especially ones with high visibility
Avoid accidentally disincentivizing high potential employees:
- High performers often know they’re high performers. They expect and want to be recognized. Ignoring them will feel dismissive to them. Connect and interact with them regularly. Ask for their advice and input and use it.
- Some leaders unknowingly punish their high-performing individuals by making rules designed for low-performing employees apply to all. For example, many business owners right now are facing a decision to bring employees back to work in the office or continue work-at-home schedules. Don’t make the mistake of forcing everyone to work back in the office because you can’t trust a few employees to get their work done. Set work goals and allow those who meet them consistently the option to work at home.
Finally, once you identify the high potential employees, identify the characteristics that make them top performers and use those characteristics to set standards. You can use the data to assess the performance of others and then help them identify areas for improvement. This helps you have the right kinds of discussions with core employees who want to know how to do better and get ahead. Involve or even let your high-performer lead the initiative—ask them to write their job description along with the skills and experience required to do the job at peak levels.
Treat high potential employees differently from the rest of your team because they add tremendous value. They win, you win, and your company wins. And maybe even their co-workers win too.