By Fred Schmalz, Kellogg School of Management
Most organizations have employees who are solid performers; fewer organizations are astute—or lucky—enough to have superstars.
So how can you ensure that your organization gets the most out of those superstars?
High-potential performers (or Hi-Pos) stand out due to their associative thinking skills—which help solve problems and drive innovation—their strong emotional awareness, and their incredible perseverance, according to Carter Cast, a clinical professor of innovation and entrepreneurship at the Kellogg School and former CEO of Walmart.com, a division of Walmart (WMT).
When your team lands a superstar-in-the-making, nurturing these traits is critical if you want that superstar to flourish. And tailoring a career plan gives high-flyers challenge enough to stick around.
“With high-potential high performers, it’s important to put your arm around them and say, ‘I think you have a lot of potential, and one of my key jobs is helping you reach your potential. I will get satisfaction out of helping you do that,’” Cast says.
Encourage associative thinking
One of the calling cards of valuable employees is the ability to innovate. But not everyone is automatically inclined to blue-sky thinking. Encouraging associative thinking—making connections between seemingly disparate ideas—can spur high-potential employees to become more creative and innovation-minded.
“Learning agility may be the most important trait of them all,” Cast says. “You are curious. You’re open to new experiences. You read a lot. You question things. You don’t take no for an answer—if something just doesn’t seem right, you go ahead and investigate it yourself. That trait drives creativity and leads to innovation.”
When Cast was CEO of Walmart.com, he had an interesting exercise to get his high-potential employees thinking creatively: a little bit of show-and-tell.
“As a leader, I can provide direction, clarity, and resources, and I can try to figure out what motivates an employee and then try to appeal to their motives,” he said.
At Monday morning senior leadership meetings, the first 20 minutes were devoted to a simple question: What did you see over the weekend that struck you? Employees then shared any new trends, think-pieces, objects, or experiences that had captured their attention.
“We had people bring up clothes, devices, articles, advertisements, circulars, you name it,” Cast says.
Next, they had to explain how these new trends or observations might positively affect the organization.
“People loved this open session because it was all about experience and application. You observe, capture, and try to parlay into what the company can do differently: If you saw this, what’s the application? If yes, then what?”
Cast advocates a healthy dose of career self-reflection for all employees, and those with high potential are no exception. Encourage them to consider: “What can impede your progress? What about you—we all have these things, because we’re humans—could hurt you? Where do you have weaknesses that could derail you? If you don’t want to come clean with me, at least come clean with yourself—talk to your friends, mentors, and colleagues to get a better understanding.”
Cast also suggests that employees look beyond their own intuition for skill gaps and other blind spots by utilizing 360 feedback. Putting a mirror up in front of people can help them recognize weaknesses, triggers, and gaps that may be impeding self-regulation and performance.
“Not putting your foot in your mouth, not butting in, not having flashes of anger, not receding into your shell when you’re challenged—basically, learning to modulate your behavior—allows you to present yourself more effectively, which can help you to be more effective with other people,” Cast says.
Remember, as well, the importance of developing an emotional awareness about others. High-potential employees need to learn how to really listen. “The basic principle is: seek to understand before being understood,” Cast says, “which can be hard for hard-charging Hi-Pos who are driven to complete their agendas.”
He reminds Hi-Pos to ask their own employees and colleagues how they can help. “Do you understand what goals and objectives they’re trying to accomplish? Do you understand what they need from you? If you help them, they’re more likely to reciprocate.”
Another way to cultivate that awareness of others is to make sure Hi-Pos actively engage across the organization.
“At Walmart, we encouraged our associates to get out from behind their desks, go out to stores, observe and learn,” Cast says. “We said, ‘you should shadow employees who handle customer checkout. You should shadow employees in electronics to see how they handle tough questions about how to install a home entertainment system. You should sit in the product return center to see firsthand how confusing the process is for customers to return an item they bought online to a store.’”
“Encourage them to go through an actual user scenario where they’re trying to buy something or conduct a task. It’s a really good way to get inside the experience of the consumer to see what they go through.”
Motivate, motivate, motivate
Employees with the grit and perseverance to keep answering the bell after getting knocked down will go far. But toughness is difficult to instill in people. It is most often a complicated, very individual drive.
“As a leader, I can provide direction, clarity, and resources, and I can try to figure out what motivates an employee and then try to appeal to their motives,” Cast says. “But ultimately they have to find a way to tap into what drives them. In the case of high-potential performers, they’re usually highly motivated and it’s more about tapping into it and directing it.”
Still, there is plenty that leaders can do to stoke employee motivation. For one, recognition can go a long way.
Cast and a colleague were in a shop in Bentonville, Arkansas and found a dusty red razorback statue at a five and dime store. “The guy gave us two bucks to get it out of the place,” Cast jokes. “We brought it back to our office in California, where the Internet division was headquartered, and we created a Red Razorback Award. Every quarter, the person that went above and beyond, or had a really good idea that improved the customer experience, got the Red Razorback.
“This ugly thing was actually coveted! I saw in resumes years later, where people wrote, ‘Red Razorback Award winner, Q2, 2006.’”
As you might expect, it is also crucial to make high potentials feel like they are improving their skills and working on projects with value.
Just don’t assume you know what counts as “self-improvement” or what motivates employees. You have to ask them. Here is a place where some leaders go wrong: they lay out a development plan without input from the employee.
Cast once had an employee whom he was grooming to become a general manager. But it turns out, that employee was not looking to become a CEO. He wanted to become a CMO—the best retail and e-commerce marketer in the United States.
“I had the wrong assumption,” Cast says. “He wanted to be a functional expert. So we stopped and I said, ‘Let’s look at your skillset in marketing and where you think you have gaps, and let’s start talking about how we can fill those gaps.’”
“Treat different people differently,” Cast stresses. “Seek to understand their motives and what they’re trying to accomplish. With super high-potential people, I worked to create tailored programs to develop them, giving them unique experiences and access to resources in order to accelerate their growth.”
Cast opens these developmental conversations by asking high potentials where their passion lies—what they want to be doing in five to seven years—rather than starting with their current position. He then has them work backwards into their current position to create the through line.
“I always lead with their passion of interests and motives,” Cast says, “and then secondly, have them define areas where they have effortless ability or strong talents. So I like to start with passion and talents. Then, together, we can move on to how to apply it through projects, assignments, and other developmental activities. But I’ve found it’s key to ask them! Take nothing for granted and let them lead the conversation.”
You have invested in your superstars’ success. You’ve increased their learning agility and strengthened their emotional awareness. You have helped them to find their own passion and collaborated on a plan to keep them engaged and progressing. What could possibly go wrong? Well, a lot—if you leave the plan to chance.
Whatever you do, “don’t overcommit upfront and offer something you can’t deliver on,” says Cast. “Find a couple things you can do to help them, and then a couple more. If you talk a good game and don’t follow through with a cadence of assistance, it could be very detrimental, because you’ve set their expectations. It takes high potentials about five minutes after they don’t feel challenged to leave.”
Of course, superstars may leave a company anyway. But the chances are much better that they will stick around to realize their potential if they see that they are valued. “One, they’re going to be excited about the challenges, and two, they’re going to feel this affiliation towards you and towards the company for investing in them,” Cast says.
He likes to tell a story about one particular high-potential employee under his wing.
“I said, ‘You’re not going to leave here, because the opportunities we’re going to give you are going to be so phenomenal that you’re just not going to think of leaving.’ He laughed and said, ‘We’ll see.’ Seven years later, when I left the company, he was still working there.”