The chosen ones: why “high potentials” should be told

To tell your most talented people they have a very bright future with your organisation is a risk well worth taking, says UK Country Manager at the Top Employers Institute, Phil Sproston.

It’s a common issue for succession planning in many organisations - should you tell the high potentials in your organisation who they are? In our experience, the debate around whether to tell (or not) is a test of the maturity of succession planning. The way this question is handled, in our view, separates Top Employers from the rest.

Employees who are identified as “high-potential” in their organisation are informed of their status by nearly two-thirds (66%) of our Certified Top Employers. And yet, most organisations “don’t tell” - the Harvard Business Review reports that over three-quarters (78%) of businesses do not let their high potentials know who they are. They fear the impact on those who are not identified, on the borderline or late developers.

This fear is understandable, but misplaced. Our experience is that the issue of whether to tell high potentials is a pivotal moment in the development of an organisation. The preference of our Certified Top Employers to tell, rather than not, is increasingly in keeping with growing expectations of greater transparency and openness among all employees. One of the challenges in reconciling transparency with succession planning is the ability of managers, from top to bottom, to be able to have regular career-focused discussions with their direct reports.

The way these conversations are handled is vital. When one tells a high potential of their status, a manager needs to be very careful how it is communicated. Being a high potential is always performance-related - not an entitlement. The risk is creating an implied set of expectations for opportunities that may or may not develop. So, in a well-communicated approach, a high potential may get challenging and unglamorous assignments to show their mettle and also needs to be aware he or she will be scrutinised more rigorously by senior executives in the organisation.

In spite of the dangers, research from the talent guru Josh Bersin shows us that a transparent approach has far more pluses than minuses. It is vital to creating high-impact succession planning. Transparency in successional planning is also significantly more beneficial to the organisation, concludes Bersin, because it is clearly linked to increased engagement and retention and a culture of high performance.

So our view is that it is better to tell than not. Do you agree?