All companies need them – talented individuals who are not just satisfied with the status quo, but rather who push the perceived boundaries of innovation, creativity and exploration to arrive at better ways of doing things, new or enhanced product suites and improved ways of supplying customers with exactly what they need. If encouraged and given the freedom, time and budget to apply themselves creatively, these innovators or rising stars have the potential of repositioning products, strengthening brands and growing revenue exponentially. The word “if” is important here as any environment that seeks to control or regulate employee behaviour will dampen their spirits and drive them away. They will simply seek employment elsewhere. Their skills will be lost to the organisation.

The Harvard Business Review (May, 2010) published a 2009 survey by the Corporate Executive Board where one in three emerging stars reported feeling disengaged from his or her company. 12% of all high potentials in the companies that they studied said that they were actively searching for a new job – suggesting that, as the economy rebounds and the labour market “warms up”, organisations may see their most promising employees take flight in large numbers. The Corporate Executive Board went on to cite the six most common mistakes made by leadership/management teams that can doom a company’s talent investments to irrelevance, or worse, as follows:

  1. Assuming that high potentials are highly engaged – many of these employees set an incredibly high standard for their employers. Exactly because they work harder (and usually more effectively) than their peers, they expect their bosses to treat them well – an opportunity to have stimulating work, recognition, compelling career paths and the chance to prosper if the organisation does.
  2. Equating current high performance to future potential – research shows apparently that 70% of today’s top performers lack critical attributes critical to their success in future roles. The survey named three – ability (intellectual, emotional and technical skills), engagement (the level of personal connection and commitment that the employee feels towards the company and its mission) and aspiration (the desire for recognition, advancement and future rewards and the degree that what the employee wants aligns to what the company wants for him or her).
  3. Delegating down the management of top talent – i.e. expecting these individuals to be managed by line managers, who typically hoard them – protected and certainly not shared. These employees are company assets and should be led as such.
  4. Shielding rising stars from early derailment – true leadership development takes place under real stress. New capabilities must be acquired here to stay in the game. As such, protection from failure actually thwarts possible growth.
  5. Expecting star employees to share the pain – the decision to freeze or cut salaries and other performance-based compensation across the board in difficult business environments. It may seem fair, but erodes the engagement of stars.
  6. Failing to link the stars to the corporate strategy – research shows that their confidence in leadership and in their company’s strategic capabilities are one of the most important factors in top employees’ engagement. Silence or strategy freeze in the midst of economic uncertainty runs the risk of disengaging rising stars when they are most needed.

The future of many companies during these financially challenging times seems to be in the hands of leaders who either make or break the spirits of highly talented individuals – rising stars that could either take the company forward (launch new business, find new ways to strip out costs, drive innovation, develop new product lines and serve customers in better ways) or leave their respective companies for better environments (leaving companies without much needed talent). Leaders must engage talented people to take them to the top tier and to prevent them from leaving at all costs.