Keep High Potential Employees with 5 Performance Coaching Questions

Posted by Susan Green on Feb 16, 2016 6:00:00 AM
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Deloitte describes high potential employees as "one who has been identified as having the potential, ability, and aspiration to hold suffessive leadership positions in an organization."

Understand the probing questions that can spark coaching opportunities at any time; and stop waiting for the annual employee review to hear what your high potentials have to say.

Identifying a High Potential Employee

In a survey done by UNC's Kenan-Flagler Business School, survey respondents pinpointed three key drivers to identifying and developing high potential employees.

  1. To prepare the organization to meet the anticipated increased demand for future leaders (83%)
  2. To retain key talent (83%)
  3. To improve organizational performance (73%)

High performers are the most valuable asset to every company. So, how do we go about identifying these stars in our own workplace? According to the article "Are You a High Potential?" by authors Doug Ready, Jay Conger, and Linda Hill (Harvard Business Review), there are four "X" factors that are hardwired in high potential employees. 

  • A drive to excel - High potentials aren't just high achievers. They are driven to succeed... they are more than willing to go the extra mile and make personal sacrifices in their lives to do so.... sheer ambition may lead them to make pretty hard choices. 
  • A catalytic learning ability - They have the capacity to scan for new ides, the cognitive capability to absorb them, and the common sense to translate that new learning into productive action for their customers and their organization. 
  • Enterprising spirit - They are explorers and, as such, take on the challenges of leaving their career comfort zones periodically in order to advance.... most of them seem to find that the advantages - the excitement and opportunity - outweight the risks.
  • Dynamic sensors - Beyond judgement, high potentials possess what we call "dynamic sensors," which enable them to skirt these risks, even if just barely. They have a feel for timing, an ability to quickly read situations, and a nose for opportunity.... knowing when to pursue something and when to pull back. They have a knack for being in the right place at the right time. 

Keeping High Potentials by Coaching them

Ready, Conger, and Hill also point out in their article that some companies lose between 5 and 20% of these high potentials in their workplace each year. 

So, as executives, managers, and those responsible for the company's strategic goals, how do we keep these high potential employees in our workplace? If 5 to 20% are leaving on an annual basis, what questions should organizations be asking their high performers to be sure their key resources aren’t the next ones out the door? One way is by using coaching opportunities to keep management's’ hand on the pulse of their high potentials.

Coaching is not an annual event that accompanies a performance evaluation. It is a day to day or week to week activity. It's not generally scheduled, its impromptu. A coaching opportunity may arise due to a suggestion made by a high potential at a department meeting or a visit to your office after the meeting to ask more questions. High performers are naturally inquisitive. They want to know every detail……. and what they need to do to succeed.

Asking these 5 performance coaching questions, cannot only help you retain your high potential employees but also keep them challenged and excited about their futures.

1. What work activities exite you? 

Remember high potential employees are driven. They not only want to go the extra mile; they can’t help it. When you intently listen to what excites them, you can start imagining projects to delegate to these extraordinary performers. Use your coaching opportunities to review goals assigned to them; be sure the tasks associated with the goals are interesting and valuable to the company. High potentials strive for success, not only their own, but want to be recognized for their role in affecting overall corporate success. With support and guidance from managers, high potentials can keep excited about what’s next while staying aligned with corporate goals.

2. Do you have the tools you need?

Information is power and most high potentials want access to power. They see it as a tool to affect change. Use your coaching opportunities to ask what your high potential employee needs. Be prepared to offer external training classes, attendance at trade conferences, opportunities to sit in on sales calls and internal mentoring engagements; and don’t be surprised if the high potential employee ends up mentoring others along the way. Most high potentials are ready to share what they’ve learned especially when it means they will be recognized for adding value. So give them the extra tools they need and be prepared to acknowledge them as they soar.

3. What do you want more exposure to?

High potential coaching is about helping someone reach their potential by finding out more about their vision and overall ambition. When coaching your high potential employees, ask them to share their personal life vision with you. Most high potentials aspire to roles that require exposure to parts of the business operations that normally would not include them. Start by looking for projects that need to be done but lack the resources to accomplish them.

The projects should give your high potentials access to other leaders in the company who have the information they need to get started. Information is a powerful tool we often overlook. If shared more often with high potentials, you can enrich their workplace experience and increase their value to the company.

Next, invite your high potentials to special strategic planning sessions designed to get feedback from this inquisitive group. Give them exposure to failed initiatives as well as triumphant successes. Show them that even best efforts can fail and then ask them what they would have done differently. Although they may not be ready to fill the boss’ shoes tomorrow, searching for creative ways to groom your next leaders should be a top priority. 

While some leaders are okay with the status quo, this group of high achievers wants recognition, the type that affects change. Mentor your high performers consistently, provide feedback from your leadership team and do whatever possible to create a success story that keeps them emotionally connected to your company’s vision.

4. What current duties do you feel are a waste of your talent?

High potentials may consider themselves as part of an elitist group. From the day they grace your workplace with their presence, they are looking for the next step up. With this group, you should take every opportunity to watch their progress, identify their gaps, and find the tools necessary to eliminate learning curves. Have you ever hired someone who you knew was overqualified for the job? During the interview, you couldn’t help but wonder why this applicant applied for the position and accepted your offer. They most likely said, “yes” because they saw potential for themselves. However, if you fail to recognize that potential, 6 months later, to your surprise, they will have resigned.

When working with employees who you have identified as high potentials, ask them what can make their job more interesting. Are they bored? Do they have a mixture of tactical and strategic goals to keep them interested and tied to your company? Are they excited about coming to work every day?

In the article title "Bored People Quit" from Rand in Response, July 2011, the author makes a common sense observation:

“There are many reasons other than boredom that someone will quit. Your company might suck or be headed towards suck. This person might randomly get an offer that fulfills their life’s dream. There is a bevy of unpredictable reasons that someone will leave, but boredom is an aspect of their daily professional life you can not only easily assess, but also fix. More importantly, boredom is not initially catastrophic. Boredom shows up and quietly appears to pose no immediate threat. This makes it both easy to address and easy to ignore.”

So ask the question, “Are you bored?” Then be prepared to fix it. Although high potentials are great to have on your team, because they are fast learners and take care of tasks in an efficient manner, “you” may need to “take one for the team.” Let them promote up and out. Providing continuous coaching and exposure to other areas of the business will keep this group of performers interested and engaged. Keep their plates free of task-oriented administrative duties to leave room for projects that increase their knowledge base and challenge their ability.

5. Where do you see yourself in the next year, 2 years?

The old question of “where do you see yourself in the next 5 years” is definitely outdated, especially for high potential employees. They won’t be around after two years if they aren’t challenged and given opportunities to shine. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average worker stays in his or her job for 4.4 years. And the younger workers, who include the Millennials, stay about half that time. The initial investment in the new resource is still a costly one, so losing the high potentials before they are fully groomed as leaders, is expensive.

Remember high potentials “have the cognitive capability to absorb new ideas, and the common sense to translate that new learning into productive action for their customers and their organization.” If you want to keep the next generation of leaders in your company, you need to keep it interesting, while keeping in mind that they will leap if they are unchallenged. Looking at resumes to gauge success based on longevity and promotions no longer holds true. The current and future workforce works in much smaller increments of time. So throw out the question: “where do you see yourself in 5 years,” and replace it with “what type of work excites you?”


Continually monitoring the “happiness” level of your employees and taking every opportunity to coach them is essential. Having an annual talk with a high potential to see how they are doing is no longer an effective way of measuring productivity, job satisfaction, and value to the company. There are real time tools available to help you through coaching, retaining and developing people. Make sure your organization has the visibility it needs to drive these important conversations.

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Topics: performance coaching

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