How to Retain Young High Potential Employees

The term “War for Talent” was coined in 1998 in a popular report by McKinsey Consulting, referring to the growing competition between companies for the best employees.

According to this concept, because people are the only sustainable competitive advantage for an organization, it only makes sense that companies would focus on being as attractive as possible to the most elite employees as a part of their broader business strategy. 


The Lure of the High Potential

Enter the early career-high potentials. These individuals demonstrate solid performance in their current roles. But, more importantly, they have the raw ingredients to be successful in leadership roles in the future.

For organizations that are focused on building a competitive advantage long-term, the attraction and retention of high potentials should be a key piece of the talent strategy. 

However, retaining high potentials is easier said than done. After all, ambitious young professionals are often actively courted by other employers. And, tend to be less tied down than the workforce as a whole. They are therefore more willing to make significant changes in their lives to accommodate a new career opportunity. 

One study found that young, promising employees were leaving for other opportunities after an average of only 28 months. And that 95% of them were engaged in job-hunting activities like sending out resumes. 

While some companies engage in short-term tactics to retain high potentials like offering flashy perks like Friday happy hours and ping pong tables, these methods are ultimately unsustainable. The only way companies can keep their high potential employees is to give them what they’re looking for: Excellent opportunities to grow and develop. 

It’s a bit paradoxical. To keep high potentials, act like you’re preparing them for their next role. Whether it’s with the organization or not.

If given consistent professional growth opportunities and support, they aren’t likely to leave. 


Strategies for retaining high potentials

If you’re serious about retaining high potentials for the long haul, here are some things to consider doing:


Provide mentoring from experienced, capable mentors.

High potentials are hungry for mentoring. Additionally, mentoring is critical for their development.

Studies have demonstrated that mentoring helps employees in many ways. From skill development related to things like problem-solving and communication to helping them grow their network with the people they need to build relationships to advance their careers.

It’s often the sponsorship and relationships developed through mentoring that helps propel individuals to higher levels in the organization. Rather than the development of technical skills. 


Give high potentials autonomy in their role.

When looking back on their careers, many successful executives recall that some of their most effective learning experiences were mistakes made in their early career years. To grow to the fullest extent, young professionals need to have the freedom to make meaningful business decisions. Even, sometimes, the wrong business decisions.

Through making mistakes, young professionals build confidence, resiliency, and gain hard-won lessons that they aren’t likely to forget in their later career years. 


Provide competitive rewards, and review them frequently.

The market value of a high potential can grow quickly. Compensation policies that don’t allow for substantial salary increases can negatively impact the retention of high potential employees. 

For example, if an early career high potential employee recently finished an MBA or other certification, took on additional job responsibilities, or moved to a new and more challenging division, they might warrant a substantial increase in their compensation. However, if the company typically caps annual raises at 5%, the high potential can quickly become underpaid. 

The money-motivated high potentials will often jump from job to job to get raises. Using the tried-and-true method of switching jobs every 2-3 years to maximize their earnings.

This strategy works because of the existence of a “loyalty discount” that tends to penalize individuals who stay with one employer. 

High potentials should never be dissuaded from or blamed for pursuing their worth in the job market. Instead, companies should review their compensation frequently to make sure that they are still paying a competitive salary. 


Tell high potential employees that the organization considers them such.

Some studies have suggested that by simply telling employees that they are considered high potential, they are more likely to stay with the employer. After all, if the organization is signaling an increase in investment in the individual, the person is likely to want to stay to reap the benefits

This may seem like common sense. However, many organizations avoid telling employees that they consider them to be high potentials because they don’t want to demoralize the employees who aren’t.

Organizations that want to keep this information under wraps tend to have a more subjective process of identifying high potentials. Therefore they can’t really defend it. Make sure the criteria for being a high potential are clearly defined, fair, and job-related. 

While retaining high potentials can require some attention and resources, it’s an investment that can really pay off. These individuals can grow into tomorrow’s leaders for the organization. 

Fridaouss Nabine

Fridaouss Nabine is a writer and strategist with experience in people enablement technologies. A Product Marketing Manager and Content Strategist at Mentoring Complete, Fridaouss engages HR professionals interested in retaining, nurturing, and developing talent through mentoring. In her spare time, she writes about the first generation experience on, and enjoys long bike rides around the city.