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Is your star player ready for a promotion?

4 min read


If you’re lucky enough to have a team with top performers, you know that eventually some of them will move on to larger roles in the organization. Do you know which ones are promotable?

Many companies have programs for developing “high potential” (HIPO) employees – those employees deemed to have the skills, willingness and commitment to the company to take on senior leadership positions. Is it a given that everyone who is a star player is qualified as an executive-in-training?

Not necessarily, says Devin Lemoine, president of Success Labs, a management consulting firm that helps companies develop their high-potential talent. She cautions managers not to confuse “high performing” employees with “high potential.” “Research shows that superior performance in your current role doesn’t automatically guarantee success at the next level,” says Lemoine. In reality, fewer than 30% of high-performing employees have the skills, ambition and personality for moving into senior management roles.

Superior performance in one’s current role is the “entry ticket” that allows access to higher levels of responsibility. Outstanding performance doesn’t ensure success at the next level, but lack of it does guarantee failure. Before you decide to invest in your employees’ development as a high-potential leader, be sure they are truly ready for — and interested in — the challenge. These elements signal potential for promotion:

Comfort with new situations. Think of past situations in which your team member was placed into chaotic or ambiguous situations. How did he or she handle it? True high-potential employees thrive on being tossed into the figurative “deep end” of a situation and finding a way to swim triumphantly to the surface. Your team member is ready if she thrives on the uncertain and sees it as “fun” to tackle new challenges. If your star player is more comfortable deepening the skills he already has, then he’s most likely a “high performer.”

A track record of learning. A hallmark of high-potential employees is the ability to learn from any situation they encounter. How does your superstar employee handle mistakes? If he recovered quickly and didn’t repeat the error, he’s on the right track. How did she cope with a sudden change in direction? If she came up with a creative solution, and loved doing so, she’s a good candidate. People who are ready to take on bigger responsibilities are those who learn quickly and roll with the punches.

They aspire to it. One element that’s often overlooked: Does the employee in question want to move up? Some HIPOs meet all other criteria except for this very important final hurdle — the desire to reach for the next level of responsibility. I recently spoke with a high-performing middle manager whose team leader is ready to promote him. The problem is, he’s not 100% sure he wants the promotion.

And he’s not alone: nearly 50% of high-potential employees say they don’t sufficiently desire a promotion, according to a Corporate Leadership Council survey. When working with your high-potential employees, talk with them candidly about the challenges that the next level brings. They need to clearly understand the demands of a promotion. Nobody benefits from promoting a reluctant manager.

Not all of your star employees are cut out to move into a more senior leadership role. And that’s OK, says Sharlyn Lauby, author of the blog HR Bartender. Lauby observes that both types of employees bring tremendous value. Lauby writes, “High performers help the company achieve their goals today. High potentials will help the company achieve their goals in the future.” Don’t set your current stars up for failure if they lack any of the attributes necessary for future success. Instead, find other ways to capitalize on their talents. Not everyone’s cut out for senior leadership. It’s up to you as the leader to help your team members accept this reality.

Jennifer V. Miller is a writer and leadership development consultant. Her writing and digital training materials help business professionals lead themselves and others towards greater career success. Follow her on LinkedIn and sign up for her free tip sheet: “Why is it So Hard to Shut Up? 18 Ways to THINK before you Speak.”

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