Tuesday 12 July 2011

Engaging the HiPo


  I’ve been dipping into some of HCI’s Engagement & Recognition conference in Chicago (and streaming) today.

There have been a number of great sessions including from Stuart Crabb at Facebook, and Joris Luijke at Atlassian – I may post on these later if I get time.  But I was particularly impressed by a session from Leah Haunz Johnson at the Corporate Leadership Council: The Disengaged Star: re-engaging your high potentials.

Stars?  Hi-po’s, the people who can be leading our organisations tomorrow, add nearly twice as much to company revenue and are 75% more likely to be successful in stretch assignments.

And disengaged?  Well in the past five years there has been a significant decline in hi-po’s emotional and rational engagement and in their performance. One in five hi-po’s are considering leaving their current company within the next 12 months.

The key point is that hi-po’s are particularly difficult to engage emotionally.  They tend to be uncertain about their career opportunities and unsupported in stretch assignments.

Leah Haunz Johnson listed four specifics managers can do to raise hi-po’s engagement (from HCI’s blog):

  1. Ask hi-po's to commit to the deal in return for recognizing their hi-po status.
  2. In return, increase hi-po’s certainty about their long-term career opportunity; this means id job families each hi-po has interest in experiencing.
  3. Hi-po’s are more engaged when managers deploy them in opportunities that match their career goals and when hi-po’s experience recognition and reward.
  4. Hi-po’s have an appetite for risk; give hi-po’s stretch opportunities, “crucible roles,” and fully support them, even in failure.



All good stuff but I do have concerns.  Firstly, over whether Hi-po’s really do have such a disproportionate impact on their organisations (vs Boris Groysberg research etc), and secondly, that even if they do, whether it’s really effective to try to engage them disproportionately.

Now don’t get me wrong, there are some easy and certainly effective things organisations can do to make their Hi-po programmes more effective – eg Leah’s point 2: asking Hi-po’s to commit to the organisation, as well as the organisation to them (as BT do) is a pretty obvious strategy.  But shouldn’t the deal always be two-way, regardless of the type of employee?

I’m struck by the fact that we didn’t mention Hi-po’s at all during David Zinger’s session last week.  And I suspect David’s belief is that organisations need to focus on engaging all their people to the best extent possible.  After all, people are engaged through other engaged people, so simply trying to engage one particular group in isolation is unlikely to work.

And I was also struck by Joris Luijke’s comments about teaming at Atlassian.  They’ve replaced their individual bonus programme by a common 8% addition to salary.  In Joris’ view, the previous arrangement just wasn’t worth the ‘disruption to society’.  Perhaps we’d get a bigger impact on engagement if we didn’t have Hi-Po programmes at all?



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  1. Lots of good thoughts here.

    I tend to come to the hi-po issue by considering predicted lifetime value of an employee. By doing so you consider not only their potential, but also their projected 'life' with the company.

    Groysberg's work resonates both with my experience but also from a theoretical persepective (if like me you have economics-hard-wiring). Their is far too much emphasis on the individual performer in modern HR which in a networked, knowledge based organization makes no sense. Part of this of course is that the theory appeals to senior managers who all believe that they are high-performing individuals, and probably as Groysberg notes, to men.

    If with measuring performance we want to get closer to understanding to the net economic contribution that each individual is likely to provide then we need to take more consideration of the value created by supporting others. SNA can certainly aid here. Tournament theory also contributes two elements here: (1) that in circumstances the best strategy for the individual who wishes to be recognized is not to work for the company good, but to be destructive and (2) the senior, highly rewarded 'hi-po's might actually on an individual basis have a negative net economic contribution, their value being justified by the incentives of their reward on those below them.

    There is also the issue of an individual's inclusion on a hi-po program as a form of signalling to the external market of value. This raises their market value and therefore increases the likelihood of them leaving.

    Finally a thought. If you consider how to calculate predicted net lifetime value and what levers HR realistically has I would assert that the best strategy is to work on increasing the projected employment lifetime (retention) not focussing on the short-term net value.

  2. Thanks Andrew, great thoughts / comments as usual, and once again, I totally agree.


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