The 6 Keys to Retaining & Developing High-Potential Employees

Emily Kingland
June 20, 2020
The 6 Keys to Retaining & Developing High-Potential Employees


Remember in those dark days before documents and spreadsheets would magically be teleported to a cloud somewhere? 

How many times did you work for hours before that little harbinger-of-computer-death hourglass would pop up and taunt your patience?

The first few times it happened, you’d probably had forgotten to save for hours if you had remembered to at all. 

And those hours weren’t teleported to a cloud to be retrieved later; they were just gone. You’d have to start from scratch — find all the typos you’d already fixed or input data, number by number, all over again. All those painful moments at the beginning of a project. 

Today, you can recognize somebody who lived through the medieval period of word processors and spreadsheets through their anxiety-fueled compulsion to hit the save shortcut every 12 milliseconds. 

I bring this up because I’m sure everybody would agree: Devoting time and effort into developing a project, only to lose it all and start over is one of the worst feelings — which is made so much worse by the fact that it is so easily preventable. 

And when we are developing our high-potential talent, we should remember the lessons learned sitting in front of those giant cathode-monitors. 

The work we put into developing our talent for leadership disappears if we can’t retain them. 

But don’t worry, there are several things you can do to make sure you retain your top talent — and just like the cloud-based, auto-saving wonders of today, the retention of your top talent is part-and-parcel of their development. 

So, how do you retain your high-potential employees? The 6 keys to retaining your high-potential employees are:

  1. Invest in their personal and professional development
  2. Connect their purpose and values to those of your company
  3. Make sure they are paired with the right manager
  4. Give them an opportunity to lead
  5. Make sure they have meaningful mentorship
  6. Leverage the power of the peer group

We’ll take a deeper look at each of these, but first....

Why do we care about retaining and developing high-potential talent?

Think about those times you’ve completed the development of a groundbreaking new product critical to your organization’s business strategy and thought: “I wish that took a year or two longer.”

Wait, you’re telling me you haven’t? 

Of course not. We want to do things quickly and correctly to get ahead of our competitors. 

But if you’re not retaining your top talent, you’re effectively saying you are comfortable getting your product out a few years later than it could be. That’s because superior talent is up to 8 times more productive than average talent. 8 times! 

Eight. Hundred. Percent. Imagine if everything were that much more efficient.  

You’d be able to cook one of those depressing microwave burritos in just over 11 seconds. Your washing machine could clean your clothes in 5 minutes. And, sure, you’d need a lot more haircuts, but they’d only take about 3 minutes. 

When it comes to your company, let’s say that one groundbreaking product you were working on takes 3 years using a 20-person team of average talent to get it to market. 

And let’s say your competitor was able to take an almost identical team and replace 4 people on it with top talent working 8 times more productively. They could get started a year after you and still beat you to market by a whole year. 

Not only does it cost us a fortune when we turn talent we’ve invested a lot in to recruit and onboard — it can cost up to 3 times their salary when we lose them — but we also lose out on all the upside value the provide once they’re gone.

Top talent matters. Your company’s future depends on it.

So, how do we retain our top talent?

1. Invest in the personal and leadership growth of your high-potential talent

We all want to develop as people. We want to become progressively better at the things we care about each day — we want to be better spouses, parents, friends, ukelele players and chainsaw jugglers. We care about our personal growth. 

Your talent does, too. 

And they want to work where there are meaningful opportunities for growth.

In fact, employees who get these opportunities are 2 times as likely to say they plan on staying with their employer. So, there is a direct correlation between growing and developing your talent and retaining your talent.

Development feeds retention; they go hand-in-hand. 

And the best way to make sure your development is providing opportunities for meaningful growth is to tailor your development to the needs of your talent. The reasons we want to grow as people are personal, so it stands to reason any effective development plan should be personalized. 

Your employees have their own goals for development. Show them you respect them and their ambitions by focusing on the individual, not a one-size-fits-all approach to development. 

Of course, you’ll still want to make sure you… 

2. Connect their purpose and values with those of your company

Everyone has values and purpose in life and these are the things that spur our growth ambitions, giving meaning to the choices we make. 

Without them, it’s unlikely humans would have ever developed enough to gain mastery over fire, invent the wheel or make cooking shows where British chefs yell obscenities at people until they cry. 

Your company should also have a purpose and values guiding the impact it’s making out in the world. And if you want to retain your top talent, you’ll need to tease out how their values and purpose are congruent with yours.

Someone might love baking savory pies, but they’re probably not going to last very long as a sous-chef at Sweeney Todd’s Pie Shop on account of its, um... unethical sourcing practices.  The values and purposes motivating the piemaker and pie shop simply don’t align.

But assuming your company’s mission isn't borne of whatever the heck is happening in British culinary schools, usually, there is a way to make a direct line from your talent’s values to your company’s.

If it’s impossible to connect the dots, either your culture needs to change or the talent needs to change. But the vast majority of the time, the connection is there.

Nothing is more powerful than when your talent’s purpose is aligned with your company. 

3. Make sure high-potential employees have the right manager

This one, along with the ones already mentioned actually rounds out the top 3 things high-potential millennial talent looks for in an employer. 

Millennials look for growth, purpose and high-quality managers.

And let’s be honest, we’ve all had some experience with this — some jobs look amazing on paper but are wholly marred by an unappreciative manager who stifles your ability to grow. 

That’s why I’m sure everyone has heard the old aphorism: People don’t leave jobs, they leave managers.

Don’t waste high potential talent by pairing them with unappreciative managers. An effective manager can make all the difference in your high-potential employees actually achieving that potential.

This is why getting serious in how you approach leadership development matters so much. There is a chain reaction that occurs as your leadership grooms the next generation. 

It can either happen like one of those cool single-shot music videos where a Rube Goldberg Machine creates amazing choreography and everything works beautifully… or it can be like what happens when you accidentally hit the alarm button on your keys in a parking garage and somehow set off every other car alarm in your state.

Great leaders help you develop and retain more great leaders; ineffective leaders drive them away. If you nail your leadership development now, this multiplicative effect will make it easy to have a steady stream of effective leadership.

4. Empower high-potential talent with the opportunity to lead

Your talent needs to be given opportunities to lead before they, well, lead. Practice makes perfect, right?

But beyond that, your future-leaders also need to be empowered to make a meaningful impact, drive value and make things happen for your company. It helps them feel connected to your organization. 

While some may find this risky, we’ve started a flagship project we use in our growth groups with CoThryve that has given incredible results.

We have each leader do a project on purpose, wherein they identify and drive some high-impact project and generate revenue for the company. The idea is that this project on purpose flows out of the individual’s personal purpose and ties directly to the company’s mission.

It’s designed to grow proactive leaders who can take action, ownership and drive real-world results. 

And if we’re serious about developing our high-potential talent into leaders, these are expectations we should have. So, it’s important we make a space for them where they are free to lead.

5. Provide high potential employees with meaningful mentorship

Your high-potential talent is craving meaningful mentorship. They like feedback, value candor and want to know how they can grow. And mentorship is a huge factor in retention, not just development. 

There’s a reason why effective mentors are such a common trope in movies. 

Where would the X-Men be without that guy from Star Trek — or the crew in Star Trek, for that matter? Do you think the Rebel Alliance could have retained Luke Skywalker without Obi-Wan Kenobi… or Yoda? He had two great mentors! 

And in the real world, mentorship matters just as much. 

The turnover rate for employees with two years or less at their current organization who don’t have a mentor? 26%. 

Employees with a mentor? That number drops to 8%. 

I’m not going convert that into microwave-burrito cooking times, but that’s significant. Mentorship shapes how your talent feels about your company, keeping your talent connected to it as they navigate their careers. 

6. Leverage the power of the peer group

We call this collective leadership development.

Essentially, you want to get your high-potential, growth-oriented leaders in the same room, adding structures and systems, but allowing them to level up together.

This does a few amazing things.

First, it builds important relationships that boost retention substantially. Studies show 62% of employees with between 1 and 5 friends at work will reject a job offer. 70% if they have more friends at work.

The more we build relationships, the better it is for retention. And collective development is one of the best tools for building camaraderie.

And top talent wants to be around top talent. Iron sharpens iron. 

That’s why entrepreneurs use mastermind groups, CEOs use roundtable groups and superheroes use weird sky fortresses — to tap into the collective energy of their peers. 

Sure, this looks like a convenient place for a meeting.

High-potential talent, with the right curriculum, structure and systems in place, can help each other level up without needing to fork out the cash for that fancy fortress. You just need to share their goals, learn and tackle issues together. 

Get them to work together to take action and build momentum.

Ideas you should remember to save...

Hopefully, you have a better understanding of how to retain your top talent, but in case you need a refresher, here’s the recap.

The 6 things you can do to keep your high-potential employees are:

  • Invest in your talent’s personal and leadership growth. Make it about the whole person and make it their favorite employee benefit.
  • Connect their personal values and purpose with your company’s
  • Give them the opportunity to lead. Empower them with stretch opportunities and instill an ownership mentality.
  • Provide your high-potential employees with meaningful mentorship
  • Leverage the power of collective leadership development and kick your development and retention into overdrive.

If you want to learn all the secrets to recruiting, equipping, empowering and recruiting high-potential talent or are craving more awesome company culture content, be sure to check out Crafting Culture on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or follow along on our website.