Few people would argue that the most valuable employees with the most potential to succeed need to be retained and developed. We could fill a thousand blogs with the best strategies for retaining these high-potential folks and could write a thousand more on how to identify what top talent looks like. The literature is endless, and yet terribly inconclusive.

There is something that is becoming more and more apparent: there is a need to do something to keep strong talent. As the economy slowly bounces back, employees have begun leaving organizations to find new, better jobs. This inevitably means that our best people are exiting the organization to work for our competitors. So, we come up with a solution to incentivize people who we know have potential for the future, usually in the form of a development program aimed at building capabilities. Sounds like a solid idea, but what happens when it goes wrong?

Company X was fortunate enough to have many stellar employees with potential to grow. However, they were concerned about them leaving if they weren’t promoted in the near future. On top of that, they recognized they had no formal way of helping these people develop as they progressed through the ranks. So, they did the obvious thing: they launched a high-potential leadership development program.

With the commitment of senior leaders, they implemented skill building workshops, mentoring programs, networking events, and assessments. Halfway through the program they realized their mistake. They had no idea who their high potential talent really was or what to do with them long-term. There was no consensus on who was admitted, and it turned out to be a combination of employees who achieved tremendous results but lacked leadership, tenured people with average results who “paid their dues” and “earned” their spot, employees in need of critical feedback (which they would invariably receive in this program), and those deemed as future leaders of the company by their bosses. In the end, the company had invested heavily in folks who may have already reached their peak or, even worse, employees who had worn out their welcome.

The organization had not fixed the problem. As a matter of fact, they may have exacerbated their issues despite commendable efforts. While it is easy to point out their errors from the outside, when absorbed in the process it becomes difficult to see the forest for the trees. Although developing and retaining high potential was a priority for them, there were other problems that needed resolution, such as providing critical feedback and figuring out what to do with solid “B” players.

We can learn many things from hearing a story like this one. The most obvious points are the following: 1) create consistency around identifying high potential players in your organization (preferably a combination of factors which may include results, leadership competencies, individual aspirations, or references) and 2) take a strategic approach to developing them. It’s important to consider long-term ramifications of your program. What happens when the program is over? Does everyone “graduate” from the program or are there hurdles to overcome? What is the long-term benefit to the organization and the individual (e.g., are participants tackling real business problems? Is there monetary incentive to the individual upon completion?). The list of questions could go on.

As we are faced with the barrage of demands in today’s fast-paced business environment, we are at risk of overlooking one of our most precious resources – our people. But with some strategic planning and problem solving, we can succeed in engaging our best employees.

The business of dealing with humans is a complex one that requires planning and thought. A solution that worked for one company won’t fit another. Before rushing to implement something by year-end, consider the positive and negative organizational ramifications. If it is framed as an ever-evolving journey, we can develop an approach that is capable of keeping up the pace of business.