Are You Stimulating or Stifling Your Rising Stars? 7 Rules

By David Boggs

I spend a lot of time watching stars. In working with organizations to place mid-level executives, the expectation is that many up-and-coming leaders – the “rising stars” or “high potentials” – will one day fill senior-level roles and shape the future.

One mistake I see leadership make, at times, is that their ideas for promoting rising stars are not always in line with what those individuals actually want. There can be a disconnect, and in some cases the initiatives meant to encourage up-and-coming executives end up discouraging them instead.

On that note, below are rules for talent leaders to consider as they establish effective strategies for rising stars:

  1. Define what a rising star or high potential looks like in your organization first. A lot of companies presume that these are the most visible and vocal employees in their ranks, or are simply junior versions of current senior execs. That’s often not the case at all. Carefully consider and specify what designates the next-gen stars in your organization, and question your assumptions about who those individuals are.
  2. Don’t assume everyone wants to climb the ladder. Beware of conveying an “up or out” culture. Many ambitious professionals get to a point where they are quite comfortable and impactful at their current employment level and pay grade. There can be great value in allowing them to achieve success in these roles long-term. Besides, realize that not all high performers are high potentials. According to George Hallenbeck of the Center for Creative Leadership, high potentials “tend to be broad and adaptable in their learning and skills,” which is not necessarily true of all high performers, many of whom may have “narrow but deep” expertise.
  3. Communicate and mentor. Tease out rising leaders’ aspirations in regular meetings with supervisors. Millennials in particular like to have feedback on how they are doing and talk about themselves and their careers—not in an egotistical manner, but as a means of figuring out or even course correcting their futures. In addition, they are very open to and, I believe, energized by being mentored. Creating a culture that encourages mentoring and regular feedback will pay great dividends in terms of retaining rising stars.
  4. Nudge, but don’t rush. It’s important to provide opportunities and encourage rising stars to take on new challenges above and beyond their normal responsibilities—new committee work or education/training opportunities, for example. Don’t expect immediate results, as it can be hard for talented professionals to juggle new tasks with their core responsibilities. Take the long view, including providing resources for high potentials over many years.
  5. Let them call the shots. Up-and-coming talent must have relative autonomy to decide what works for them in terms of career progression. They may have entirely different ideas about what constitutes “work-life balance” than their seniors in the organization. They may want to get ahead, but still within a 9-to-5 or even flex work schedule. Listen to them rather than prescribe or layer on your own expectations.
  6. Link high-potential strategy to diversity promotion. Identifying and encouraging women, minorities and diverse professionals as rising stars is an effective way to improve leadership diversity. Dedicate mentors and resources to this cause, with the understanding that diverse candidates know very well whether a company is truly committed to diverse leadership or not.
  7. Accept attrition. Not all rising talent will stay. This will always be true, so know that you are investing in high potentials for their personal gain and some will leave the fold to pursue other opportunities.