I have seen it over and over again.
A rising star is successful in their work, and leaders take notice. They develop this person’s skills, assure that there is a career plan for them long-term and give them the support that they need to fulfill the prophecy. Then somewhere along the way that person marked as “high-potential” suddenly, well, isn’t anymore. So, what happened?
A Hi-Po Loses Their Luster
Occasionally someone is promoted more quickly than they can manage, or I have also seen leaders unskilled at assessing talent oversell someone’s capabilities. Yes, this happens. But this is not the scenario I observe the most. More often than not, I have witnessed someone with loads of talent start by being seen, supported, communicated to, and by receiving feedback. Then the winds change, something upsets that equilibrium such as getting a new boss, a new boss’ boss, or something reshuffles their own priorities in a way that drastically changes how they view their work. Suddenly the once “hi-po” is left to the average levels of development, support and communication, which (let’s be honest) usually isn’t much.
There are two problems with this. First, it can feel like a seismic shift from being supported and provided resources to ensure your success, to suddenly being left out in the cold. As a rule of thumb, leaders are wise to provide everyone on their team some tailored support, versus only giving resources to your top performers, or worse, no one. But to fall from the top shelf can feel like a pretty long and painful fall. Second, the bigger issue for leaders to address is that your talented people didn’t lose their talent. They lost their engagement.
Employees (high-potential talent or otherwise) can become disengaged for any number of reasons, and sometimes those reasons are entirely in their hands. For example, a new dad welcomes his first baby into the world and suddenly realizes his travelling four days each week isn’t going to make him happy any more. But most often I witness a change in the way the company or a leader supports that person as the impetus for their engagement tanking. And then after a valiant fight on the part of the employee to keep their shit together, the self-fulfilling prophecy appears when they have no energy left to give and their performance drains to match.
A Turning Point
Look deeper. What happened?
Maybe it is a new boss with totally different priorities, many of which were poorly communicated or poorly managed in change. Sometimes it is a new department VP who totally reset the priorities from above, shoving aside the beloved work that employee spent the last two years building. Maybe a person of influence in the organization is in direct conflict with the star employee’s personal values. Perhaps a merger happened and the uncertainty is derailing them.
In none of these scenarios (and there are plenty more) did this talented employee’s knowledge, skills or abilities change. There was no talent troll that came and stole their magical powers. Their excitement and energy for the work was cut off.
Taking Radical Accountability
I believe it is each individual’s responsibility to own their own happiness, first and foremost. As employees we cannot be dependent on our work to make us happy. But, as employers, we have the utmost responsibility to create a workplace where people feel they belong, and to do everything we can to show our employees, “I see you, I support you, and you matter.” It is a tall order to be sure, but we invited them to work for us so it is part of the deal.
To help prevent our top performers from falling from grace, as leaders we must take radical accountability for the role we play in what happens on our teams. When someone’s engagement falters, how might we as leaders have contributed to it (even unknowingly)? What could we do to help them get back on the wagon, or better yet prevent that from happening again? If we approach this from the lens that it actually is in our control to do what needs to be done to engage our teams, I bet you can find as many as ten small things you could do to better the situation for your employee. All too often out of ego or fear we rescind responsibility and instead attach failing engagement to external forces out of our control. Most often it is within our control, and our results and teams would be better for it if we owned it.
I am willing to believe in so many cases, your high-potential people can’t even articulate what is happening. I have seen remarkably talented people completely lose their self-confidence and their trust in their abilities because they simply can’t articulate what happened to them or why they fell out of favor, or are horrified that they can’t muscle through it. It can have a damaging effect on a high-performer’s self-assurance for a long time. I have seen it in friends, in colleagues, even in myself.
If we want to be our best possible selves as leaders, then we have to take care and take radical accountability for our humans and their engagement in the work. Talented people don’t just lose their strengths, they simply save their strengths for the worthy recipients.
About the author:
Katie Rasoul is the Chief Awesome Officer for Team Awesome, a leadership coaching and culture consulting firm. Find out more by visiting www.teamawesomecoaching.com or join the Team Awesome Community for awesomeness coming straight to your inbox. Follow Team Awesome on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.