Identifying and Nurturing High-Potential Employees


When we mistake a high-performing employee for a high-potential one we are making a costly error in management and are risking the loss of real talent. Yet, we are all guilty at some point of doing this because it’s an easy mistake to make. We look out into our ocean of employees and can quickly spot those ‘high profile’ high-performers who stand out in the crowd. Then there are the high-potential employees who are often left on their own and forgotten. You know the type. They are hired, trained (maybe), and given attention when it is convenient, but they are often low maintenance so they fall under the radar. But don’t be mistaken – low maintenance does not equal low potential, as these professionals are often simply doing their jobs and going unnoticed.

Think about your high-performing leasing professionals.  They often receive more training and other opportunities to grow and develop their knowledge, skills, and experience.  They are eligible for more lateral moves and considered first when a promotion is available. They are asked to head up special projects and invited to attend important meetings. Their supervisors spend more time mentoring and coaching them.

Sometimes we create our own high-performing “monsters” who tend to plow over the rest of their team. They keep rising while a leasing professional with high-potential will merely keep plodding at their daily tasks without recognition or advancement opportunities.

So what would happen if we as supervisors invested more time with employees who aren’t high-performers? Can those hidden gems on our team realize their potential and accomplish amazing feats? Yes! Surprisingly, with enough attention, encouragement, training, and opportunity, they can.

A few of these amazing industry success stories I’ve been witness to over the years are:

  • A Leasing Consultant who eventually becomes the Vice President of Marketing and Training
  • A Groundskeeper who climbs the ladder to Vice President
  • A Leasing Consultant who is promoted to National Marketing Director after 10 years

High-performing employees stand out. They consistently exceed expectations, take pride in their accomplishments, and are often the go-to person because of their track record. While high-potential employees are a different kind of employee altogether, and they can be difficult to identify. Why? For one reason high-performers often drown out the less obvious attributes and behaviors that characterize high-potential employees. Additionally, managers don’t always know precisely what to look for to assess employee potential.

Here are three ways tips for identifying and nurturing high-potential employees:

1. Look Beyond ‘Superstar’ Performance

When performance is the only criteria employees are evaluated on, high-performers will move up, while high-potential employees will move out. This doesn’t mean that we should not value and reward performance. However, if we want to build a more robust talent pipeline, performance should not be the only point of entry. High-potential employees are typically defined as employees who have the ability, motivation, and commitment to move to the next level. However, not all companies take the time to identify these employees in a purposeful and organized manner, yet these are the individuals who will be taking their organization into the future.

Begin by asking yourself some very fundamental questions:

Do they work hard and accomplish a lot as a result?

Do they exhibit fundamental integrity in all of their actions and in their outlook?

Do they take responsibility for themselves and their actions and decisions?

Do they foster team work?

Do they willingly help other employees who fall behind?

Do they take on additional responsibilities and opportunities to add value to their position?

Do they seek out ways to do their jobs more effectively and efficiently?

This can be a difficult step to take because we are naturally drawn to great performance, and it takes time – something many of us lack – to identify these traits. However, asking good questions and moving beyond obvious ‘superstar’ performance can reap incredible rewards for you and the employee down the road.

2. Offer Opportunities

High-potential employees can become bored and complacent if left in their original work environment. Once you identify high-potential leasing professionals, present them with an opportunity to change their environment – offer them a bigger or different challenge.

Sometimes this means stretching their responsibility or even relocating them to another location. The workplace environment influences to a great extent error rate, level of innovation and collaboration with other employees, absenteeism and, ultimately, how long an employee stays in the job.

Changing their environment can inspire your high-potential employees and it could save you from an unfortunate headline like ‘High-potential employee quits company because of their boss and moves on to become someone else’s superstar!’

Do you know that research shows that most employees quit their company because of the relationship with their immediate supervisor? It’s sad, but true.

Here are two ways to avoid boredom, complacency and high-potential employee attrition:

  • Offer high-potential employees a new challenge.
  • If you suspect you have a high-potential employee in your company and their immediate supervisor disagrees—do your own homework. Don’t solely rely on what others have to say.

3. Present the Challenge

It is scientifically proven that the brain changes in response to challenge. Setting the right challenges for your high-potential leasing professional will help them develop a growth mindset and enhance their ability to learn. Develop challenges together with the employee – give them a stimulating assignment to mull over and complete, allowing them total ownership of the challenge.

Assign them something that they have never done before that will magnify their insights and abilities. Tell them you are expecting great things from them and they will rise to meet your expectations.

Let mistakes be transparent and become shared opportunities to learn together. If you don’t let employees make a mistake, they won’t learn and they won’t grow.

Career advancement opportunities have long been correlated with improved performance. In our industry, management or corporate positions are not readily available. It can be very discouraging for an employee when they realize that their dream job is already filled by someone who intends to stay until retirement. That’s why career enhancement is important. Help your employees lift their current job to new heights – stretch their job description and then wrap it with a new title.

By allowing high-potential employees to determine how they can improve the job they already have, they can build their own challenges and design work for the future.

Managers play a big role in building a pipeline of thriving talent, and it’s increasingly important that do this successfully. While employee development is no cake walk, failure to assess potential versus performance is a very real leadership problem. The good news is that it’s solvable. It simply takes dedication to identifying your high-potential and high-performing employees, assessing their competencies, attributes and training needs, and then putting them on the right path to success. It’s time well spent.

Maria Lawson
Vice President of Training and Development
Ellis Partners in Management Solutions