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DR MAGGI EVANS, Chartered Occupational Psychologist, Consultant and Coach, Mosaic Consulting

Most organisations have a group of senior high potentials – the people who appear in the exec level succession plan and are considered ready (or nearly ready) to move into top roles. They’re a really important group with huge amounts of intellectual, social and cultural capital within the business. The challenge? This group needs to be retained, kept highly engaged and performing – but they can’t yet take their next career move, as there isn’t a vacancy.

This limbo can lead to problems – we’ve identified four ways in which this group of senior high potentials can derail: 1. stagnation, 2. failure, 3. burnout and 4. departure. Which employees are at risk in your succession plan – and what can you do about it?

  • Risk one – Stagnation: This often happens when people have made huge progress – they’ve taken part in structured development, had opportunities to grow, develop, try new things out and yes, they seem ready to move up. But the catch is, there’s nowhere for them to go. Gradually they get into a comfortable place. They stop thinking about how to improve, they stop being curious and looking for new ways to contribute, they lose some of their drive and hunger. Everyone gets used to seeing this person’s name on the succession plan, so it’s not questioned – but when a role does become available the light bulb goes on – this is no longer the right person for the role.
  • Risk two – Failure: Too often we’ve seen a myth build up about high potentials, a bit like Jason Bourne or Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson, they are invincible. They’ve often had one really significant success, and this is assumed to indicate that they can do anything. So, they get deployed on a real-life Mission Impossible until the big role is free (apologies for mixing different action heroes!). They are left to work their magic, but they can’t – the mission fails and people start to question if the person was high potential in the first place. But really, they never had a chance and they weren’t given the support they needed to make it successful. The result is often a forced exit. The organisation loses someone really talented and the individual carries the scars of the experience for the rest of their career.
  • Risk three – Burnout: This risk is also about expectations – but the ones the individual puts on themselves. High potentials often describe an anxiety that comes with the high potential label – are they really good enough? How do they prove their worth? How do they demonstrate that they’re one of the top talents? As a result, they feel that they must say yes to every opportunity, they must work harder, do more, keep proving themselves and for some, this can lead to burnout. If caught early, this can provide an opportunity for the person to re-calibrate their expectations and to learn new strategies to manage their relationship with work. However, in some cases this has led to significant and long-term social and employment difficulties.
  • Risk four – Departure: When faced with being ‘ready now’ and having nowhere to go, one group of people won’t stagnate, they will start looking at other employment options and then leave. They will feel that the organisation hasn’t delivered their side of the career deal (‘I work really hard, do what you ask of me and keep learning – meanwhile you are meant to pay me, give me learning opportunities and promote me’). So, when faced with no promotion opportunities they start expanding their career management activities, start having informal conversations with head-hunters and sooner or later, they find a more attractive option, somewhere they feel that their talents will be properly recognised and rewarded.

How to manage these risks, and retain your senior high potential employees


If these are the risks, what can we do to manage them? Research (and experience) points to the importance of having ongoing and transparent conversations with people. This requires a trusting environment where people can be open – discussing where they are in their career, exploring what the organisation needs from them and what they want for their own motivation, engagement and satisfaction. It seems obvious – if you talk about it together, you can identify potential problems early and take action. However, other research shows that quality career and developmental conversations are rare at senior levels and that expectations are often poorly managed.

So, we need to help people to talk. In addition to ongoing informal conversations, it seems that formal check-ins focusing on career development and learning are essential. Here are some suggestions for questions which will help you to identify and manage the risks of stagnation, failure, burnout and departure:

  • How are you feeling about your current role?
  • What have you really enjoyed in the past 12 months?
  • What has been difficult or frustrating?
  • What have you learned about the business and yourself over the past 12 months?
  • What do you hope for in the next 12 months?
  • What do you hope for beyond that?
  • What can we do to help you to achieve this?

These simple questions can start a powerful dialogue which can help you to work in partnership with your high potentials – finding ways to manage the risks together and to reach a solution that delivers a group of motivated, capable and agile successors.


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Maggi is an experienced consultant and coach with international experience across a wide range of sectors including professional services, financial services, retail and FMCG.  She is a Chartered Occupational Psychologist and combines research and practice to develop practical solutions to drive business improvement.

Maggi has been a consultant for over 20 years, specialising in talent strategy and talent development.  She has a reputation as an insightful consultant, helping clients to reduce the ‘noise’ around an issue so they can focus and act on key issues which will make a difference.  Maggi is on a mission to help organisations, leaders and individuals to liberate talent.  Her first book ‘From Talent Management to Talent Liberation’ has recently been published.



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