How to Keep Your Young High-Potential Employees

I remember a television commercial, popular in my youth, which shows a young man seated across a desk from a much older gentleman. The young man is interviewing for a job. He’s told by the older man that he won’t be moving forward in the process. Dejected, the young fellow inquires why. The older gent bluntly tells him he doesn’t have enough experience. Looking genuinely puzzled, the young man asks, “How am I supposed to get any experience if you don’t give me a job?” The commercial ends with the two locked in this pettito principii.

While I have no recollection of what was being advertised in that commercial, that scene has stuck with me all of these years, and has informed a key exercise I conduct with clients today in regard to the optimal pace of associate advancement. See, when to pull the trigger on talent moves is a real-life dilemma. Balancing what’s right for the business and what’s best for the associate is often difficult to do. One says, “go slow.” The other says, “speed things up.” One says, “give me the experience I need.” The other says, “come back when you have the experience you need.” Recently, here, I wrote about the importance of small enterprise owners and CEOs training their replacements. One of the key barriers to them doing so is risk. It’s also what stands in the way of most business leaders moving as quickly as we should on advancing younger, less experienced associates.

Improperly managed personnel decisions are covered up with risk. First, there is risk involved in the readiness of the associate in question to do the next job. Then, there’s risk around whether there’s a suitable replacement for the associate in their current role. Assumedly, the associate is performing well; so, to trade a known quantity in them for an unproven re is quite often a crapshoot. Finally, there will be other moves above and below the one in question that must be made to facilitate it and along with them there will often be customer, supplier and peer to peer considerations that must be, well, considered and which add to the risk punchbowl. For many leaders, the amount of risk or just the sheer thought of it is enough to cause them to pass on these moves continuously. Most often, they’ll articulate their decision with words like, “I just don’t think he/she is ready yet” or “I don’t feel like the time is right to make this move,” or “I don’t think he/she has been in their current role long enough.” The trouble with these sorts of nebulous statements is this: unless something changes, nothing will change.

In our fictional TV commercial, the young candidate left begging a question. In my work around this very issue, I do too. In this case I challenge business leaders who continue to postpone advancement of ambitious, albeit not perfectly prepared, associates with the question: what will be different a year from now? Implicit in my question is a prediction that, without change or other intervention, all will be the same a year later, with the associate still in their same role, still being assessed as not quite ready to move along. The problem with this sort of hypersensitivity to risk is that it stunts both the growth of the organization and the associate.

Unlike their counterparts from prior generations, younger, Millennial and Gen Z workers are not willing to wait around for advancement or put their careers in the hands of their superiors. In fact, a recent study from InsideOut Development, a workplace coaching firm, found that 75% of Generation Z workers expect to be promoted within their first 12 months on the job, with 32% believing advancement should come in the first 6 months! Among Millennials, the Addison Group, a provider of professional staffing services, along with Kelton, a global insights firm, surveyed over 1,000 workers and found that 40% of them expect to be promoted every 1 to 2 years. PwC with Opinium surveyed over 4,000 associates across all generations and reported that 52% of younger workers ranked pareer progression as their first priority, ahead of second place, “Competitive Salaries.” Firms that err too far on the side of risk management, choosing to slow walk associate advancement, will run head-long into a generation with entirely opposite expectations. This paradox stands to create particularly vexing issues for small and medium enterprises which tend to be much more horizontal to begin with, offering, by their nature, structurally fewer opportunities for advancement than their larger, public counterparts. So, what’s the answer?

As with almost every issue related to people, the best way out is through improved communication and expectation management.

By creating, and regularly revisiting, development plans for their associates, particularly those with high potential, business leaders can create alignment between themselves and their workers around next position, timing, and capability gaps. These plans do not need to be complicated. It’s a simple matter of owners sitting down with key associates to gain an understanding of their advancement goals, sharing their point of view, then coming to agreement on the next step in the associate’s career and the anticipated timing for them to achieve it. Leaders and employees will also agree on the soft and hard skill gaps which must be closed for the worker to achieve the desired promotion timetable. Finally, the two parties should establish a cadence of meetings, not less than quarterly, to check on the associate’s progress against the goal. By establishing development plans for key, high-potential associates, small enterprise owners can de-risk future advancement while also minimizing unwanted defections from workers who are dissatisfied with the pace or communication surrounding their next promotion. And for younger workers, the next step in their career doesn’t need to include a new role or fancy new digs.  

While younger workers have greater expectations in terms of advancement timing, they are less concerned with title or other trappings than their Boomer and Gen X counterparts. Savvy business owners can leverage this understanding by working with these associates to broaden their responsibilities, even within their current positions or by providing high-visibility special project work in other areas of the business. The previously mentioned PwC research also found that Training & Development was the most mentioned fringe benefit desired by younger workers. By offering regular opportunities for younger workers to learn other aspects of their business, not only are business owners satisfying this intrinsic need to learn, but they’ll be reducing risk in regard to their future advancement while also creating important backstops to other critical positions within their organization. Assigning key associates with a mentor is another great way for business leaders to provide both training and development insights to high-potentials on their team.  With more associates trained to do more things, the impact of vacancies, even short-term absences like vacations, will be reduced while associate satisfaction and retention spiral. But the benefits don’t need to stop there.

Younger workers also want, and thrive, on regular, near constant, feedback. Give it to them, and you’ll create further incentive for these workers to stay.

And while reducing the risk involved with associate advancement is by itself a huge incentive to improve processes and communication related to career development, there are tremendous financial benefits to doing so as well. That’s because longer-tenured, engaged hi-po associates deliver improved results. According to Gallup data collected from 7 organizations across 20 separate studies, associates who are highly talented, tenured and engaged, perform 35% higher than associates who go 0 for 3 across all three measures.

Paradoxically, then, by taking steps to break habits initially formed out of an aversion to risk, small and medium enterprise owners will ultimately create a better performing, more cohesive and lower risk version of their business. It’s a simple matter of no longer putting off until next year what needs to be confronted today. So, take control of associate advancement today; there’s never been a better time.

The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of