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High-Potential Employees

Help them Progress Without Promotions or Rotations

Although companies are bigger than they've ever been, they offer fewer promotion opportunities; the HR team at one big retailer has a good way of keeping HIPOs engaged without promoting them

Companies are bigger than they’ve ever been but also have to move more quickly than they’ve ever had to, either in response to a competitor or to take advantage of a new opportunity.

On top of this, managers must collaborate with more of their colleagues throughout the corporate hierarchy to get anything done. This means that many managers have to cope with a work environment that at once gives them more autonomy – because there simply isn’t time for their boss to sign off on everything – and less ability to get anything done independently. What constitutes a high-performer in this environment is what CEB dubs an “enterprise contributor.”

This new work environment has also resulted in managers managing more people (having bigger “spans of control,” to use the jargon) and also reporting to multiple people in a “matrixed” structure. And this has meant that, while there is more work to do, there are fewer promotion opportunities for everyone.

This is a particular problem when it comes to high potential employees (HIPOs) – those who have the right mix of ability, aspiration, and engagement with the company to become a senior leader – who are 15% more likely to leave when they don’t make the progress they feel they should, according to CEB data.

What Not to Do

The problem is that typical efforts to provide HIPOs with “progression opportunities” are insufficient. With few promotion opportunities available, HR teams tend to rely on development tactics, such as special projects and rotations. Yet not only can these opportunities feel artificial, they’re often not valuable for either the company or the HIPO.

For instance, giving special projects to a HIPO merely add to their workload rather than change the nature of the work they’re doing, and therefore more likely to result in burnout than a stretched and satisfied employee. Rotations are inherently disruptive and potentially ineffective if they’re not aligned with the HIPO’s needs. And these shortcomings can even undermine the HIPO’s progress up the snakes and ladders board of corporate promotion.

What to Do Instead

Instead of promotions, rotations, and special projects, HR teams can trying “breaking the rules” of career pathing to create the type of progression that HIPOs need.

Many HR teams are restricted by their assumption that “progression” means “movement” or can be achieved by giving more tasks to capable HIPOs. Instead, they need to recognize the potential within the HIPO’s current role to create quality growth opportunities.

The HR team at a large Canadian food retailer in CEB’s network of HR teams did just that by creating in-role progression opportunities that align with the HIPO’s progression needs, and benefit both the HIPO and their teammates. They work with both the HIPO’s manager and their team in two important steps.

  1. Delegate select responsibilities from the HIPO’s manager to the HIPO: HR conducts conversations with HIPOs and their managers to identify responsibilities to delegate from the manager to the HIPO. The responsibilities must present an opportunity for meaningful growth and align with the development needs of the HIPO.

    For example, a manager will delegate their quarterly check-ins with the senior leadership team to a HIPO seeking to build their profile in front of executives.

  2. Redistribute responsibilities across the HIPO’s team: The HIPO’s manager, together with HR, adjusts responsibilities and ownership across the team to ensure everyone benefits from the rearrangement. The individual needs of teammates are considered in order to successfully facilitate the HIPO’s expanded role.

    The HIPO receives meaningful stretch without performing two roles simultaneously and the HIPO’s teammates get exposure and development.


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