How to Identify the Employees You Should be Promoting

November 4, 2016

Deciding who to promote is one of the biggest decisions an organization faces.

Smart organizations build leaders from within. Research shows it’s significantly cheaper and produces far better results than hiring leaders from outside your organization.

The key is promoting the right people. For example, you likely have highly productive employees who are excelling in their role. But promoting them could be a mistake, as they might not have the skills to excel in a higher role.

Hence, you need to identify the high-potential employees within your organization, as opposed to the highly productive. These are people who are not only excelling in their current role, but have the ability to excel at the highest levels within your organization.

In her course Find and Retain High Potentials, leadership consultant Katy Sharon describes how to screen for high potential when hiring, how to retain high-potential employees and, most germane to this conversation, how to identify the employees from within your organization you should start building around.

The last part, according to Sharon, is best done through a formal “talent review.”

So what is a talent review?

A talent review starts with a meeting of leaders within your organization. There, the goal is to identify the high-potential employees you can start grooming to become your next generation of leaders, according to Sharon.

In that meeting, your leadership team should:

  • Identify employees who are excelling in their role.

First off, you should identify the high-performing employees within your organization. This is relatively simple – most managers can easily rattle off their standout people.

The problem is most organizations stop there. But there is a difference between an employee who is productive in their current role, versus one who has the potential to excel in a higher role. That makes the next steps critical.

  • Within that group, look for people who have taken risks.

Employees with high potential don’t do things the way they’ve always been done – they take risks and try new things. Hence, you don’t want someone who simply has mastered one skill, but instead someone who has found newer, better ways to deliver results.

This shows that the employee has a more strategic view of the organization. And that’s the exact type of person who has the capability to take on a larger role.

  • While identifying high-potential employees, ensure you're getting feedback from multiple people.

One thing you want to avoid when making your list of high-potential employees is giving too much weight to one opinion. People can be biased either way on an individual, so therefore it's essential to get multiple people’s views on a person.

For example, a direct manager often can overrate the qualities of some of their best employees. By getting feedback from multiple people, you ensure a person is universally respected.

This should go beyond just the leadership team. Talk with an employee’s coworkers and direct reports before labeling them high potential, to get a full view of what they’re like.

  • Test your list with this one question.

When finalizing your list of high-potential employees, ask yourself this question about every employee on it: Would these individuals come to mind first when there’s a larger job you need to fill?

Hopefully, the answer is yes. If not, you should probably take them off the list.

  • From there, begin succession planning.

Once you have your list of high-potential employees, it’s time to figure out what exact roles they’d best fit in. To make this happen, meet with department leaders and gauge the employee’s own desires to start determining a succession plan for the best person to replace each of your existing leaders.

First off, this is smart because it prepares you if someone leaves. But, just as importantly, it forces you to start thinking about what the next generation of leaders within your organization looks like, and what role would be best for each person.

  • Additionally, give your high-potential employees development plans.

Chances are, your high-potential employees aren’t fully ready for their next role. Here’s where you should use feedback from others and evaluative tools to determine the high-potential employee’s areas of development, and then give them the learning resources needed to improve.

Should you tell an employee they are high potential?

Yes, according to Sharon. But there are some risks associated with it.

The risks to telling an employee they are high potential are:

  • There is no guarantee that person ultimately will be promoted.
  • It might discourage employees who aren’t told they are high potential.
  • The employee might try to do too much to meet your expectations.

However, Sharon believes the benefits outweigh those risks. The benefits are:

  • It’s a clear sign that you value that person’s contribution to the organization, which increases their engagement level.
  • It shows you want to invest in their future, which increases their likelihood of staying at your organization.
  • They are more “coachable”, as they are more open to feedback, knowing that implementing it is key to their career growth.

Sharon advised telling an employee they are high potential in private. She even encouraged creating a “high-potential contract” with them, where you lay out realistic opportunities, so long as they meet certain developmental milestones.

Tying it all together

Great leadership is paramount to any organization’s success. And the research shows that building leadership from within is the most effective way to have consistently strong leadership – if done right.

Hence, organizations are wise to bet on their own talent. The key is being able to bet on the right talent, and picking people who are not just productive in their current roles, but who have the potential to be great in their next one as well.

Want a comprehensive strategy on how to build a strong leadership pipeline within your organization? Check out our free guide on developing great people managers.