How to Manage Young, Talented, Ambitious People

September 18, 2017

Advice for managing high-potential employees, including common challenges to managing high-potential employees.

High-potential employees – employees who are generally young, talented and ambitious – are key to building your organization long-term. If you can retain and develop them over time, they’ll bring your organization to new heights.

That said, they aren’t easy to manage. On one hand, they are highly ambitious and highly in-demand, so if they are unhappy in their role, they have plenty of options elsewhere. On the other hand, if they don't embody your values, they can damange your culture.

So what are the chief challenges to managing high-potential employees? And how should you overcome them?

Well, in her LinkedIn Learning course aptly named Managing High Potentials, leadership guru Sara Canaday outlined three common challenges to managing high-potential employees, and playbooks on overcoming them.

1. They wrongly believe their value is tied to their expertise, not their mental agility.

A high-potential employee is generally really good at the job they have – that’s why you’ve labeled them high-potential in the first place. But, generally organizations (smartly) develop high-potential employees by putting them in rotational programs or by giving them new roles to master.

This is great. But the problem is, when a high potential is put into a new situation, they aren’t experts anymore. At least at first, they provide little value as they need to still learn, which can prove very frustrating to them and cause them to lose their confidence.

The solution: High-potential employees aren’t deemed high potential merely because they excel in their current role. They are deemed high potential because, as the name implies, they have the potential to excel at most roles.

And, during times like these, they need to be reminded of that.

“You may need to remind them that the biggest value they offer isn't what they know, but how fast they can learn and apply something they don't know,” Canaday said.

2. High potentials are driven to perform above all else – while forgetting about their own needs and others.

Above all else, high potentials want to get results. And that’s a really good thing, except it can have some negative cultural and personal ramifications.

“In their efforts to prove themselves, they may be sending the wrong message to their peers and coworkers, becoming so consumed with meeting goals that they inadvertently forget to recognize the contributions of others – or even to cultivate and share information,” Canaday said. “Their hyper-focus might look completely self-serving. Like a power play, a move to get ahead versus a desire to be a team player.”

Additionally, high-potential employees are often so motivated, they neglect their own health. They work long hours to the point they eat poorly, sleep poorly and/or don’t unplug, which is hardly a recipe for long-term success.

The solution: This really comes down to awareness, as high potentials are often oblivious to the negative ripple they are causing to themselves or their team. On the team front, just by telling them specifics of how they alienate teammates or aren’t being as collaborative as they should be, often fixes the problem, Canaday said.

“You may want to caution these go-getters that they are role models for others,” she said.

On the personal front, it’s a similar mantra – reinforce the idea to them that work is a marathon, not a sprint.

“Gently remind them to pace themselves and think about their contribution on a larger scale,” Canaday said. “They can't work at an optimal level if they're perpetually burned out and run down.”

3. High potentials crave new challenges and new experiences.

It’s a bit ironic, the first and third challenges, yet they both exist. On one hand, high-potential employees like to know they are good at what they are doing. On the other, they get restless when they do the same task too much, and crave new and exciting challenges.

If you keep them in the same job for too long, they’ll likely start looking elsewhere. So you need to give them new challenges and experiences, but in a smart way.

The solution: First off, despite the concern in the first point, you should give your employees new rotations if possible. So give them different duties or different roles and reinforce that you value them not for their expertise in a singular area, but for their mental agility.

What if that’s not possible? You can add variety to their current role by giving them ambitious goals or having them work on unique or stretch projects. While you don’t want to overwhelm them, adding some challenge to their work will actually increase their level of engagement.

Want to learn more how to manage high-potential employees? Watch Canaday’s full course on the subject. Or, watch her other LinkedIn Learning courses on Managing New Managers, Managing Experts, Managing Experienced Managers, Managing High Performers and Leadership Blind Spots.