Unlocking hidden potential in your workforce

The pandemic has forced many of us to think about our priorities – what we want to gain from life, and how. HR must now help employees rediscover their potential and reinvigorate their careers, or risk losing them. Dominic Bernard reports

Emerging blinking into the post-lockdown light, employees have begun to take stock of the changes in their world and reconsider their career paths. 

Rather than being forced to look elsewhere for growth, opportunity may lie within their current employer; it would be in HR’s best interests to help them uncover that potential.

In September, we asked four expert panellists to tackle the issue live in our HR Lunchtime Debate, in partnership with HR tech provider SHL.


A desire for change

The panel agreed that the problem facing HR is universal. The pandemic has enforced a period of inertia, but now, as the economy begins to recover, and lockdowns are eased, an urge to do something different seems to have gripped the workforce.

Terri Ellison, SHL’s chief HR director, noted that the surge of camaraderie that characterised the first lockdown soon faded, and engagement has abated. The problem, she said, is “how to motivate people when they’re tired”.

“I’d say it’s the biggest struggle in most organisations,” she added.

When polled, a majority (54%) of the webinar audience reported that they had also noticed an overall decrease in employee motivation since the start of the pandemic.

“Over the past few months, as the market started to pick up, it has given people that chance to think differently, of how they can make change in their lives, whether it be at home or in their job,”
said Ellison.

“Everybody’s looking for that glimmer of change to get going. It might not necessarily be about your organisation, it’s that premise in the brain at the moment, where people just want to get out of where they are. 

“They want something to be different but they don’t know what it is.”

Ruth Cornish, founder and managing director at consultancy Amelore, agreed: “People are starting to catch a breath and realise how they’ve been feeling.”

And employees, she added, are not blind to the market.

“There have been plenty of renegotiations about terms. Employees have realised that we’re desperately trying to recruit the best people, and that they’re in a situation now where they can ask for what they want.”

The problem with recruiting and retaining talent, however, is that it is now more complicated than before. Money alone does not have enough pulling power, said Markos Koumaditis, HR director at the House of Commons.

“Big brands like Lidl, that once had thousands of applicants for each position advertised, now have 10 or 20 – and they’re not sure why.

“It’s definitely not the remuneration, it’s something more than that.”

Mental health and wellbeing, he added, has become more of a priority for talent. 

Koumaditis added: “I think what we’re getting at is the volume of work for the individual, the lifestyle that they would like to have, and their priorities have changed completely. You need to tap into that.”


Spotting potential

How then can HR stop high-potential employees from flying the nest? The first step, agreed the panel, is to gain a clear picture of where your talent lies and where they want to be.

Gaining this insight requires close collaboration with managers and shaking up annual appraisals, said Ellison. 

“One thing we’ve done that has made a significant difference has been changing the good old annual appraisal system and helping people have at minimum a quarterly conversation with their managers.”

More frequent contact with managers helps to draw out employees who might not otherwise recognise their own potential, she said.

“It also helps to embed information about you and your own development within this feedback. You don’t necessarily know you’re a high-potential person, you don’t see your own strengths, so that feedback coming in helps you to see and identify those things.”

The House of Commons, Koumaditis said, has done away with the annual appraisal entirely, in search of this more fluid approach.

“We have moved to a coaching focus,” he said, adding that, by aligning the needs of the individual with that of the organisation, both will prosper.

“These coaching sessions, as we call them, are more regular throughout the year, they focus on the individual and their development, and also what they need in terms of support.”

This has helped channel individuals’ ambitions and goals towards concrete goals that they can achieve while staying within the organisation.


Potential versus performance

The Peter principle (whereby competent individuals are promoted based on their success in a previous role, rather than by their potential suitability for their new role) has long been a troublesome
problem for HR. But how can organisations make the switch to promote based on potential instead?

Technological tools can be a big aid, said Ellison, helping to divine one crucial bit of information: the divide between an organisation’s current skills, and those it will need in the future.

“When you’re looking at the future and you’re trying to see what skills and competencies you need, and then you look at the individual, and their current skills and experiences – it’s that gap.”

Rhea Chatterjee, head of people at the bank Monument, added that potential is much more about behaviour than an individual’s expertise.

“It’s about identifying those core personality traits in individuals: the desire to learn and grow, about their collaboration and that influence that they have across an organisation.”

Cornish agreed but warned that high-potential employees can also be a handful. “There needs to be an acceptance that people with high potential aren’t always going to be the easiest employees,” she said.

“They’re going to be a bit annoying, and we need to recognise that, and we need to make sure that we’re flexible enough to value that about them.” Failure to work with these tricky but valuable employees, Cornish added, means an organisation could risk losing that talent to competitors.

“What you don’t want is for the person who’s spotting the potential in your organisation to be a headhunter because they’re very good at it.”


Trusting in managers

Successfully unlocking employee potential may demand HR leaders to step back and take on more of a coaching role as, the panel agreed, it’s line managers who are best positioned to have such conversations.

Managers, Cornish pointed out, identify potential all the time, as part of their day-to-day activities.

“Often, however, they’re the ones that aren’t involved in this process at all because ‘HR knows best’, it’s ‘our area’,” she added.

“That’s where we could all stand to learn. HR is very good at spotting talent, don’t get me wrong. But I think we get buried in HR, with lots of processes.”

Processes, she explained, can turn others off. They get it wrong, or don’t understand what’s needed. Instead, HR should simply allow itself to be guided, when it comes to talent, by principles.

One reason, however, why HR departments might be reluctant to entrust managers with the identification of high-potential talent is the risk that nepotism could come into play.

As Chatterjee pointed out: “We all know about the squeakiest wheel getting the grease.”

However, if HR is armed with the proper data she added, it need not fear politics getting in the way of potential.

“I think that’s where some real value can come from the HR team, in being able to embed some of those ways of thinking, and build that calibration, so that managers aren’t just picking out the loudest person rather than the brightest.” 


Watch this webinar and all Lunchtime Debates on demand here.