Get to Know High-Potential Employees and Their Aspirations

By Bob Nelson

The first strategy is to get to know your high-potential employees personally and discover their aspirations for the future. There’s a big difference between what employers think motivates HIPOs and what actually does. HIPOs tend to value chances to directly influence and direct their own careers, challenging assignments (or even the choice of assignments), and real risks (and rewards!) for the work they do.

Spend time with each of your high-potential employees to discuss these things and explore their preferences for future work assignments and career paths.

One activity that can help candidates explore their inner values and aspirations is to have them mentally construct an “Ideal Day” ten years into the future, divided into 15-minute segments. Where did they wake up? What time was it? Who were they with? If they went to work, where did they work? What was their job? What were they working on? And so on. This activity can help establish the direction high-potential employees want their careers and lives to take. This exercise has inspired many people to make major changes to put their lives on the path they most want to go.

When you know what makes your HIPOs tick, try to align their goals with those of the organization and its vision, mission, and strategies. Have HIPOs spend time with the firm’s executives so they can learn and better understand these organizational objectives. Also, align the opportunities your HIPOs value with these organizational elements.

Johnson & Johnson managers select individuals they believe could run a business (or run a bigger business) in the next three years to participate in a nine-month program the company calls LeAD. During these nine months, participants receive advice and regular assessments from a series of coaches brought in from outside the company. They also must develop a growth project — a new product, service, or business model — intended to create value for their individual units.

Each candidate’s progress is evaluated during a leadership session that is held in an emerging market such as China, India, or Brazil (which increases participants’ global knowledge). Graduates leave the program with a multiyear individual development plan and are periodically reviewed by a group of senior human resources heads for further development and reassignment across the corporation. Johnson & Johnson managers believe that the LeAD process has accelerated individual development of the company’s high-potential employees. More than half of the LeAD participants moved on to bigger positions in the company during the first three years of the program.