The Challenges With Keeping High Potential Employees Engaged

Catalant Staff

Representing an organization’s next generation of leaders, high potential employees (HiPos) in agile organizations possess the emotional intelligence and collaboration skills to lead agile teams, the ability to rapidly make critical decisions, and the drive to own innovation-focused projects. HiPos set the standard and pace of execution, and play a critical role in building a culture of innovation across an organization. As the employees who are the most willing and capable of filling an organization’s leadership roles, keeping them engaged is imperative for business agility and driving future growth.

Although there is little debate over the critical connection between the need to engage fast-learning and fast-adapting HiPos and the ability to operate with agility, doing so successfully does not come without significant challenges. Research shows that HiPos leave their employers in fewer than 2.5 years on average. Nearly all of them regularly explore prospective job opportunities, and one in five plan to leave their current job in the next six months. The cost of these departures have executives rightly concerned — according to a Future Workplace and Korons study, 87% of employers say that retaining employees is a critical priority.

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So why is it so hard to keep high potential employees engaged?


1 in 5 HiPos is likely to leave a current job in the next 6 months.

Source: What High Performers Want at Work,
Harvard Business Review

Evolving Employee Expectations

Advanced technology and cloud infrastructure enabled by ubiquitous connectivity have transformed the way people work. Today, 68% of enterprises’ workloads run from a combination of public, hybrid, and private cloud platforms, and that number is expected to increase to 83% by 2020. At the same time, we are witnessing a rapid proliferation of coworking spaces and remote-work options.

Beyond changes in the technology and infrastructure that support the way work gets done, employers today are forced to address an evolution of workforce expectations, not the least of which is a desire to balance personal, family, and work responsibilities. An Ernst & Young study found that work-life balance is the number one reason for wanting more flexibility for 76% of the workforce, and more than half of all resignations occur due to lack of workplace flexibility.

76% of the workforce say that work-life balance is the number one reason for wanting more flexibility.
66% of resignations occur due to lack of work flexibility.

Businesses all over the world are experiencing changing workforce expectations. In 2017, a Mercer survey asked employees in various countries what they’re looking for at work. In the U.S., Canada, and Japan, employees’ number one request was for more flexible work options, while employees in India, Italy, South Africa, and UK, employees want their unique interests and skills to be understood. People in Australia and Germany want quicker decision making, while those in China and Mexico want their business leaders to actively support innovation.

At the same time, highly skilled workers are increasingly exploring unconventional career paths in nontraditional companies and industries, and we are also seeing a rise of the independent workforce. A McKinsey study found that 162 million people in the U.S. and Europe engage in some form of independent work. Consider Gavin Payne, founder and CEO of independent consulting firm Payne Enterprises, who chose to leave a lucrative consulting position at Bain & Company to launch his own boutique consulting firm. He cites a desire for autonomy, independence, and the opportunity to grow as a business leader. “Bain, McKinsey, and BCG are mature, safe firms — but you can have far more control over your life and financial upside by founding your own firm. I’ve seen that already in my first 6 months. I also saw a lot of opportunities to grow as a leader if I went out on my own,” said Payne in an exclusive interview.


162 million people in the U.S. and Europe engage in some form of independent work.

Source: Independent Work: Choice, Necessity, and the Gig Economy, McKinsey & Company

Learning and Professional Development

Employees — and a company’s HiPos chief among them — want meaningful work. Harvard Business Review found that more than 9 out of 10 employees are willing to forego more than 23% of their future lifetime earnings for greater meaning at work, and nearly 80% of employees would rather have a boss who cares about them finding meaning and success in work than receive a 20% pay increase.

Today’s workforce also has a strong desire to thrive at work. According to Mercer’s 2018 Global Talent Trends Study, 81% of employees want opportunities to grow professionally, work on innovative projects, and develop leadership skills. HiPos frequently cite unmet expectations around mentoring and career development as one of the top reasons they decide to leave their jobs. If one company doesn’t offer enough opportunity, HiPos will find another that will, which can negatively impact team productivity.


80% of employees would rather have a boss who cares about them finding meaning and success in work than receive a pay increase.

Deloitte research shows that today’s workforce is more global, diverse, and educated than the workforce of the past. Although this is, of course, an excellent and welcome development for the world economy, this evolution has also increased pressure on employers to regularly renew the promise of learning and professional development opportunities for their workforce.

Organizations must address highly educated high potential employees’ request and ensure they have ideal opportunities for meaningful work, professional growth, and continued mobility. Meeting employee expectations and keeping HiPo individuals engaged, however, is just one piece of the puzzle. Enabling cross-functional collaboration across teams of these individuals is equally, if not more, important to a company’s ability to survive and thrive in today’s rapidly evolving, technology-driven business landscape.

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