Managing High Potential Individual Contributors

In career and talent management practice the high potential employee who is a business critical, individual contributor represents one of the most valuable resources an organisation has. They are a sizeable investment and managing their careers can be challenging task - especially for the manager whose personal career plan looks very different. Getting the best out of them can be a critical factor in an organisation's shared success and is an important part of many manager’s roles. These associates come in a variety of guises and specialist functions, e.g., finance, marketing, IS or IT, legal. All add value to the organisation's services. Their knowledge and thought leadership is often critical to our business and may have taken years to obtain.

The productivity, experience and creativity of this group are critical determinants of success - particularly in any organisation where knowledge is the stock in trade.

Managing them to maximise their engagement can require specialist knowledge and practices. What are their typical work and career preferences? Finding this out can help, significantly, in developing the manager: employee career planning relationship. My experience suggests that exploring some of the following work and career preferences will often be helpful:

Intrinsic job interest
The majority of these employees will look for intrinsic challenge in their work – challenge that leads to the development of their technical expertise and the satisfaction of solving real problems. Their motivation springs from interesting and varied problems to solve or roles to fulfil. This will often involve working with expert colleagues whom they respect. Whilst all of this may be true for many employees in the knowledge economy, it seems to be a particularly strong career driver for these employees and typically becomes more important in mid/late career.

Respect for their expertise
High potential individual contributors like to be recognised for their expertise. This applies just as much to those who are doing a steady job that produces competent and reliable output as to those who are recognised as world class in their field. They may be sceptical about soft skills development but will often relish development activities that add to their expertise, such as first and foremost, challenging and stretching technical work, including projects and assignments. Coaching by peers (and managers whom they respect) will invariably be sought after, whilst coaching by anyone who fails to appreciate their expertise is likely to be a wasted investment. These individual contributors may well be part of the key to the overlap between personal and organisational development in some areas of business as they readily establish and support internal networks, corporate Wikis, conferences and innovation focused groups.

These specialist contributors like to be able to make a difference to clients and within the organisation. Making a contribution, having some impact and ensuring that the investment in their education does not go to waste are all important to them. These are the intrinsic motivators that keep them engaged and reward arrangements need to recognise this. A single career track built around a team leader - managerial - senior mangerial - business leader pathway will typically exclude these people. Many organisations need to be able to describe a complementary career pathway that may not involve people management but which retains, rewards and nurtures this distinct pool of talent.

Support
High potential individual contributors generally look for a supportive relationship with colleagues and their manager as an aid to their work.

Particularly at senior level they will value the opportunity to contribute to major programmes and projects; to advise their peers and colleagues in operational areas about specific issues – including taking part in strategic planning; developing others within their own specialist area and ensuring a succession pipeline and being responsible for specialist know-how and its continuous development. Senior specialists often have a highly valuable advisory or mentoring role. This kind of contribution through others may not be measured effectively by a performance management system defined in terms of objectives so their manager will need to make allowances for this.

Long term perspectives and freedom
Many high potential individual contributors are engaged on work where a long term perspective is important. They will not work effectively if the atmosphere is one of constant uncertainty. This undermines confidence and the ability to be creative, and also disrupts the kind of processes they engage in. At the same time, their commitment will often be more strongly connected to their type of work than to a particular employer. If the organisation can not deliver interesting work, there is a motivation to move on.

Many high potential individual contributors have a great desire to be allowed to experiment and exercise their expert judgement without being fettered by what they will often see as "organisational bureaucracy". They are not alone in this but it is a particularly relevant consideration when you are managing these thought leaders and highly successful specialists.

Managing the talent pipeline
Managing this part of a "talent pipeline" can be rather more complex than managing the pipeline of general management roles. It is important to invest time in keeping up to date with the relevant employment markets and to be deliberate about succession planning for experts in particular.

The quality of career discussions is typically an area that needs careful attention. Good managers of high potential individual contributors are invariably able to discuss what is happening in the relevant job markets. This can be fed into intelligent and mature career discussions, particularly if “glass ceilings” are unavoidable.

Talent pools for high potential individual contributors may need to be managed separately from any general management talent pool. However, this does not mean that development processes must also be entirely separate. Ultimately, high potential people in any organisation represent the future of the business and need to work collectively – and, in any case, the talent pipeline should be plumbed in such a way as to create frequent opportunities (but not requirements) to cross over from one pathway to another.

Managing performance
In managing the performance of individual contributors, managers need to be especially thoughtful.
Some high potential individual contributors may feel that those managing them can assess what they have achieved, but may not fully recognise issues of quality of achievement and scale of innovation for example. It is important, therefore, to be clear what good performance really means for the various specialists that work for you.

Managers play a key and a challenging role in ensuring that the organisation maintains clear links between its overall goals and employee needs. In some cases non-specialist managers may benefit from the insights of senior specialists and thought leaders who may play an important role – through performance objective setting - in connecting specialist team and individual objectives with those of the company.

Managers who are not familiar with the background of a specialist may have difficulty in providing the feedback that they need. This is an area where networking can help in getting the manager up to speed on the feedback expectations of particular groups of specialists.

Perhaps the key questions for managers are: Would I recognise excellent or bad technical performance? How can I develop this understanding?

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