How to identify, engage and nurture high-potential talent

Succession planning should be a core part of your workforce management strategy. Here's how to get it right.

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In a tight talent market, succession planning should be a core part of any business's workforce management and development plan. Building a pipeline of talent ready to take on progressively greater responsibility and leadership in an organization is key to driving success, especially in the constantly evolving IT market.

Building a strong "bench" of strong talent starts with identifying, engaging and nurturing high-potential employees at all levels, and then working to develop their strengths and retain them long-term. It sounds simple enough, but the truth is, succession planning isn't easy -- it takes a determined, concerted effort to be proactive about the process, instead of simply reacting when your business is faced with a key skills gap or a vacant role when an employee leaves or is promoted.

"Most organizations do a good job of planning for the future when it comes to the business strategy and with plans to achieve set milestones like profit, growth and market share. But where many fall behind is the inability to plan, in equal detail, how roles will be filled with appropriate talent in support of that strategy. The same way we do SWOT [strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats] analyses for business strategy, we should be doing the same for talent," says Dominique Jones, chief people officer and vice president of HR at Halogen Software.

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Start with the basics

A good succession planning strategy starts with great communication and lots of feedback, Jones says. It can begin as early as the interview process with identifying a candidate's strengths, weaknesses, interests and career goals. Once an employee is hired, managers should have regular, ongoing performance and career development discussions with their employees to explore competencies and job descriptions for potential future positions, she says.

"None of this happens effectively without great communication channels, especially regarding career aspirations and skills -- both strengths and gaps. Managers need to be really engaged with every step along an employee's desired career path, so they can describe and help to develop the knowledge, skills, abilities and experience employees will need," Jones says.

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Plan out next steps

As part of these conversations, managers should identify potential next steps, learning activities and developmental assignments that will prepare candidates for future roles. Managers and employees can also use this time to plan specific learning goals and then monitor skill acquisition through a transparent and open development plan that's discussed and reviewed regularly, Jones says.

Finally, executive leaders and managers should meet to discuss the performance and potential of employees on an ongoing basis so that everyone's on the same page, and no one's caught off guard if a vacancy happens, Jones says. "These meetings also present good opportunities to discuss succession planning strategy overall, and to identify high potential employees in particular who could fill the organization's talent pipeline," she says.

If your organization is taking the time and putting in the effort to work closely with employees on their development and growth, having an open dialogue about succession possibilities, and has the courage on both sides to place someone in a new role, that's when the true "magic" happens, says Jones.

"The employee's career plan matches up with a company's succession plan -- but that's not about coincidence, for the most part. It's about having a structure and process to identify talent pools of people developing for future opportunities and working with the employees to develop their skills and experience for that time when openings come up to place those people in new roles," she says.

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Focus on engagement and retention

It's not just about ensuring the current success of the business, but also about talent engagement and retention strategy, too, Jones says. Succession planning and employee development and training demonstrates a commitment to employees, and shows them they have a future in your organization, according to Dan Schawbel, partner and research director at research and workforce management consultancy Future Workplace.

"If your employees don't see a path up, they will start looking for a path out. It's in companies' best interest to make sure they're making their workers' skills, experience and interests a priority and to help them navigate and nurture a growth and development plan. It can help in areas like cultural fit, where companies often struggle -- if you have great people within the company already, you have to do whatever you can to keep them, because it's hard to find," Schawbel says.

It's an area companies are starting to pay greater attention to, according to a survey from Future Workplace on The Active Job Seeker Dilemma.

Only 50 percent of the 4,347 job seekers polled by the survey say that their most recent employer has helped them advance in their career, even though 48 percent say their employers could help them do so through project assignments, 39 percent say their employers could help them advance through promotions and 35 percent say they could be helped through leadership development programs.

There's good news in the survey, though; of the 129 HR professionals polled, 68 percent say they're focused on promotions and 47 percent on project assignments, and 56 percent say they seek to enhance their employee experience in 2016 by investing more in employee training and development.

"There's a psychological component here; people like to be around others who have their best interests at heart, and that extends to the employee/employer relationship. We see this in a lot of smaller companies, especially, where they might not have a lot of openings, incredible pay or traditional advancement opportunities, but where there are many chances for and interest taken in development and growth, retention and engagement is so high. We see a lot that, if you invest in and develop your people, even if you get to the point where you're developing them out of your company, they'll still stay," says Tom Schoenfelder, Ph.D., and senior vice president of research and development at talent management company Caliper Corporation.

Getting succession planning right through this approach helps ensure a bench of qualified, engaged internal candidates who can be considered to fill a vacant position when the opportunity comes up. "It's in every organization's best interest to identify its top talent, then work to continually retain those employees. Building bench strength through effective succession planning is the best way to ensure an organization is primed and ready to adapt when faced with change, adversity or opportunity," says Jones.

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