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A Hidden Show of Talent
High-Potential Employees Abound; Management's Problem Is How to Find Them

By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 12, 2006

The vast land of workers is full of them: people who do their jobs, but actually have so much more to offer. These people could possess great hidden leadership talent, smart ideas about how to run things better. The only problem is how to identify these so-called high-potential employees.

Just about any workplace may be teeming with them (stop laughing, you). Now if only a management team could recognize who has such potential .

Finding talent that is already within an organization is a smart business move. For one thing, cultivating existing talent can save money on hiring additional labor. "Everybody's looking for that 'Gosh, if I just had this employee or that employee. If I could just hire from the outside,' " said Chester Elton, author of "The Invisible Employee: Realizing the Hidden Potential in Everyone." "The fact is, you probably have someone like that on your team already."

Many companies are preparing for a mass exodus of workers as baby boomers hit retirement age. That huge loss of talent is likely going to start a war over new, good employees. "You're not going to be able to get your talent from outside," said Victoria Green, a management consultant in the Philadelphia office of RHR International, a consulting company in executive and organizational development. "You're losing some of the historical knowledge of the company and culture and product. It's important to get people with those experiences."

Discovering the potential within your organization is also important because it can boost morale. Those workers whose ideas and interests aren't tapped by management will only retreat into their cubicle shadows and become ambivalent about their jobs. What a waste.

Some employers have caught on.

Xcel Energy, an energy provider in Minneapolis, has a program in which employees are encouraged to introduce new ideas for just about anything at the company. The program "allows employees to get engaged in their workplace," said Bill Newby, managing director of enterprise process management.

Employees at Xcel have come up with ideas that have saved money, increased revenue and reduced safety hazards. The company estimates it has saved $17 million through employee suggestions. It received more than 7,000 suggestions from its 10,000 employees last year, and two-thirds of those ideas were implemented, Newby said.

The program helps managers and executives see who might have great potential for different roles within the organization.

"We see employees who can step out of their comfort zone," Newby said. "It's a great way to get noticed in a corporation."

That's one way. Another is to hire a consultant, of course. Some are now making a living teaching executives how to find those high-potential employees. Green believes the best way to seek out greatness within one's own ranks is to follow a specific process.

Managers "often think they can assess skills well themselves," Green said. "They need to create a process that's a little more systematic to find them."

Too many executives and managers look around casually and pick people they then turn into the office stars. That's not always the best way to assure the chosen ones will thrive, however, she said. For instance, some people are simply better at selling themselves but may not have the right attributes, while an employee who truly has high potential is sort of hiding.

RHR says high-potential employees have these attributes in common:

· They are ready and willing: These workers are always up for new tasks. They create opportunities for personal and professional growth. They also have a willingness to take career and business risks to accomplish these goals.

· They are willing to admit what they don't know: High potential workers have the guts to look at their own performance objectively. They can admit weakness, which shows that they are self-confident and want to continue to do better.

· They are quick learners: They are able to take on new information quickly and can get beneath the surface of issues by "learning about others' perspectives, motives and prejudices."

Once those employees are recognized, it's important to let them know.

Managers often forget to communicate to employees that they are valuable, Green said. But that communication is important so those employees who have potential know that there is a future for them -- one in which they can suggest ideas, grow and really push beyond a job description.

Most workers spend their days looking out a window, dreaming about where else they could go. But the fact is, most employees really want to be engaged. The problem is too many feel they haven't been asked. "When you get a good idea, reward it," Elton said. "The odds are you'll get more good ideas from that same employee."

And thereby find that hidden potential.

Join Amy from 11 a.m. to noon Tuesday athttp://washingtonpost.comto discuss your life at work. Have a tip or idea for a column? E-mail her atlifeatwork@washpost.com.

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