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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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A New Poseidon Adventure: Flipping Succession Planning Upside Down

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A New Poseidon Adventure: Flipping Succession Planning Upside Down

Organizations make significant investments in efforts to hire the right candidates – the people who have the right experience and cultural fit. By carefully managing the performance and potential of these people over time, the organization can grow its leadership pipeline, keep a steady inventory of needed skills and competencies and remain nimble in the face of change (which we have plenty of all around us these day) – all of which can have serious impact on the bottom line. However, much of this pie-in-the-sky stuff relies on being able to locate and cultivate high-potential and high-performing talent across the board. Without an integrated succession management solution, recognizing and developing talent can be an ever-elusive process. The questions we are seeing asked today include: does the traditional top-down approach to succession management still make enough of a difference? Does managing succession for a slim strata of senior executives take full advantage of the kinds of talent data we now have at our fingertips? It doesn’t have to be so. Succession management can be an interactive process between senior leadership, managers and employees at all levels of the organization. And, if we trust them, we can actually let employees become active participants in their own career development. (Shudder.) Career Management (Succession Planning Flipped Upside Down) This "bottom-up" approach is gaining momentum because who better to tell us about employee career path preferences than employees themselves. Organizations actually have talent management and other HR systems in place that allow for collecting and analyzing a whole slew of data around: Career history Career preferences Mobility preferences Professional and special skills Education achieved Competency ratings Performance scores Goal achievement Training and certifications Etc. In short, pretty much everything we’d want to know to make well-informed succession planning and talent pooling decisions. For some, the leap is simply putting some power into the employee’s hands. The talent management system of 2011 is capable of displaying a clear internal career path for employees and then, on the basis of all that data bulleted out above, showing a "Readiness Gap" – what do you need to do to make the step to the next level? And if your talent management environment comes armed with a real Learning Management System, you can take it to the next level with a dynamically generated development plan that gets the employee on the right path to actually closing those gaps. Faster development, faster mobility. Organizations that seriously favor internal mobility don’t just make employees stick on pre-defined career paths – they can search for ANY job in the company and check their Readiness levels. I might be in accounting today, but what I really want to do is move to marketing. Giving employees the chance to explore various career avenues within the organization helps assure that "water finds its level" – that is, that the right people with the right skills and the right levels of motivation and engagement find the right job roles internally. Employee participation is key, but make no mistake – managers play an important role in this interactive process. They must be prepared to provide career coaching, identify development opportunities and recommend employees for job openings. The candid discussions require that employees have open access to information so they can best understand the criteria necessary to move to the next level. A Two-Way Street Employee-driven career management is just one tool. The more traditional top-down approach to succession management remains indispensable. But organizations that value talent mobility and the ability to be able to shift and mobilize talent resources quickly will find that attention to career pathing can be vital. For employees, of course, the impacts are immediate and include boosted levels of engagement, higher retention, increased productivity and more.

The Hidden Costs of Ignoring Your Talent Management Strategy

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The Hidden Costs of Ignoring Your Talent Management Strategy

Building and maintaining a successful company hinges on having the right people to execute projects and drive results. People, we hear time and again, are your company's most valuable asset. But their success — and HR's ability to recruit, engage and retain them — depends on HR pros who are strategic decision-makers, armed with the proper tools to let them excel at their jobs. Modern HR professionals manage much more than payroll and benefits. But their technology tools, in many cases, haven't evolved past basic productivity software like email or Microsoft Word. HR simply can't be strategic with old-school tools that reduce people to statistics and give little insight into what the numbers mean. Emails and spreadsheets were not designed to deliver meaningful insights into people's performance, suggest when employees should be promoted or highlight skills gaps in a company. For that, HR needs a broader, more strategic set of talent management tools, which lets professionals manage every aspect of the workforce, from training and performance reviews to collaboration and succession planning. Yet, research shows that less than 25% of companies use a unified, holistic approach to their talent management. The Real Costs of "Doing Nothing" As a Talent Management Strategy The critical relationship between business strategy and HR strategy too often gets overlooked by senior leadership. While it may seem like the company is saving money by managing recruiting, training, performance and succession via manual and paper-based processes, in reality it’s costing your business more than you know. For example: Without a talent management strategy, a company with 2,000 employees is losing almost $2 million every year in preventable turnover alone. Businesses that don’t invest in learning suffer from decreased employee performance and engagement to such a degree that they can expect to realize less than half the median revenue per employee. That’s a direct impact on the business. In employee performance management, organizations without a focused strategy waste up to 34 days each year managing underperformers and realize lower net income. To learn more about the business impact of talent management and how to start building out your strategy, check out the eBook Why Your Nonexistent Talent Management Strategy is Costing You Money (And How to Fix It) and register for the March 19th webinar, Building the Business Case for Talent Management.

The Return of the Moderate Merit Budget – Wreaking Havoc on Pay for Performance

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The Return of the Moderate Merit Budget – Wreaking Havoc on Pay for Performance

With the economy now on steadier ground, most organizations have returned to administering a merit budget to the pre-recession levels of 3 to 3.5%. In the years immediately following the economic downturn, many merit budgets were eliminated entirely or were reduced significantly and reserved for a select segment of the employee population. Pay for performance has become a necessity for many organizations that are expected to accomplish more with fewer resources. I often get asked: "How can I truly award my top performers with such a limited budget? Should I do so at the expense of my ’Meets Expectations’ performers? What if I need to retain my ’Meets Expectations’ performers and giving them 0% to 2% increase puts me at great risk for turnover? But if I don’t recognize my top performers, don’t I risk losing them...?" These are difficult questions to answer, however you can determine the best solution for your organization by considering the following: Are your employees paid at market pay levels? Is your organization’s performance management process mature? Does your organization have other compensation programs in place to reward top performers (e.g. variable pay)? Market Pay If turnover is a concern, and your organization needs to maintain ’bench strength’ in order to achieve its strategic objectives, your biggest priority should be to ensure that you are paying your employees at market pay levels. Why? Historically, as the labor market strengthens, organizations become vulnerable in terms of losing people. Hiring and onboarding replacement talent is not only costly to the organization, but can also cause dissension among existing employees since new hires may be getting paid more. Be sure to stay abreast of market pay levels and trends, and use the merit budget to correct disparities. Performance Management Process Organizations vary significantly in terms of the maturity of their performance management process. Closely examine your organization’s process and look for ways to improve it. If there is a perception that one management team is an ’easier grader’ than the others, the process is inherently flawed and any pay for performance program will not be viewed as credible and fair by employees. A good place to start is to get a calibration process in place and communicate broad guidelines on expected distribution ratings. Variable Pay Programs Variable pay programs (e.g. bonuses) have become increasingly more popular across all industries and career levels. These programs provide the opportunity for employees to share in the organization’s success while not adding to fixed payroll costs. Some plans have an individual performance component which can be a very effective means to recognize top performers. However, in order for this type of program to be successful, individual goals and targets must be well documented and communicated. Again, this is largely based on the maturity of the organization’s performance management process which takes time to evolve. What are the best steps to avoid wreaking havoc on your pay for performance process? First ensure your pay levels are keeping pace with the market Continue to evolve your performance programs with calibration among managers and a rigorous goal setting process Promote variable pay plans to reward high performers without adding to fixed pay roll costs It’s not always an easy journey but, in the end, it’s best to use a measured approach that is based on business needs and a realistic assessment of your current programs and processes.

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