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4 Ways to Develop High-Potential Employees into Subject Matter Experts

Sharlyn Lauby

High-potential employees (HiPos) offer immense value to their organizations. So it's no wonder that organizations want more of them. If companies offer the proper development opportunities to these individuals, they can transform into key contributors for the organization – both in the short and long term. This is great for company performance and their succession plan.

In addition, most employees want to be identified as HiPos. Organizations typically give HiPos exclusive professional development opportunities, additional incentives or recognition, and sometimes make extra efforts to retain them. This recognition helps boost employee morale, loyalty and performance.

However, there's sometimes an assumption that, when talking about HiPo employees, they will all become managers. And that might not happen for a variety of reasons:

There aren't enough management opportunities within the organization

The HiPo employee doesn't want to be a manager

The HiPo employee isn't best suited for management

Now, the first two reasons are self-explanatory and regularly cited even when we're not talking about HiPos. But, let's look at the third reason. Just because an employee has been identified as HiPo doesn't mean their high potential is in management. Organizations can do themselves a real injustice by assuming HiPo only means management. Another option for high-potential employees is becoming a subject matter expert (SME).

A subject matter expert is an individual with deep knowledge and skills in a particular process, function or technology. Hence, they're often referred to as the "expert" in that area. Not to take anything away from managers but SMEs can be equally (if not more) valuable to the business. The key is to utilize the person as an SME.

Create transparent and authentic SME roles

Where organizations often go astray when it comes to developing SMEs is that they don't take full advantage of dual career paths, sometimes called dual career ladders. A dual career path is often used with highly technical positions where one path follows management and the other follows technical expertise. Here's an example of two different career paths for an engineer:

The idea behind dual career paths is that someone who loves the technical side of things can still grow and progress within the organization. And the individual who wants to move into management can do what they want as well.

In order to offer dual career paths, organizations need to make the technical (aka SME) path desirable. It cannot be viewed as a "you weren't good enough for management opportunity, so here's this other path for you." Companies already do a pretty good job of promoting the benefits of management. Organizational SMEs should be showcased in recruitment marketing. Dual career paths should be discussed during onboarding and in performance reviews.

In addition, SMEs should have internally equitable compensation and benefits, receive fair rewards and recognition for their work, and receive appropriate professional development opportunities. The last thing any organization wants is for their resident expert to not be an expert anymore.

Dual career path pursuits: 4 activities to develop SMEs

Organizations have development plans to help an employee move into management, so organizations also need to do the same for SMEs. Going from HiPo to SME doesn't happen overnight. A good place to start is by examining activities where HiPo employees can learn and teach at the same time.

1. Special Projects

By definition, special projects allow groups to operate autonomously in delivering a specific result. They are often great opportunities for employees to demonstrate agility and collaboration. Temporary assignments provide employees with 1) the opportunity to do something they're very qualified to do, 2) work with new groups of people and 3) contribute to an immediate need in the organization. The HiPo employee is developing their skills while at the same time showing others their capabilities.

2. Learning and Development (L&D)

HiPo employees have several opportunities to share their knowledge and skills during onboarding and technical training. The one thing that's important when it comes to SMEs delivering training is giving them the tools to do it well. The company should have SMEs attend a train-the-trainer program, so they learn how to effectively convey information and practice in a safe environment.

3. Knowledge Management (KM)

This is one of the most underutilized programs in organizations today. Knowledge management is the systemic process of gathering, using and sharing institutional information. SMEs can be used to create the process, monitor information sharing, and ensure the information remains current. Since SMEs have a deep knowledge of their respective area, they should be among the first to share their own information for the program.

4. Employee Coaching

This isn't about coaching HiPo employees, although that could be very valuable. HiPo employees can be trained to become coaches for other employees on technical matters (aka the subject of their expertise). Think of this as more of a one-on-one training environment versus managers coaching employees. And because the SME isn't a manager and can't issue discipline, it could be a less stressful coaching experience for employees.

High performance, high value: Organizations need SMEs

While HiPo employees often are promoted into management, that doesn't have to be the only way employees bring value. Companies can create and encourage dual career ladders where HiPo employees have a choice: management or subject matter expert. Both are incredibly valuable to the company and rewarding to the employee.

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