How to Spot a Star

Top employees should be eased into a prominent role

Written by Derek Abma

Your employees are a talented bunch, or you wouldn’t have hired them. But let’s be honest, some stars within the group always shine brighter than others.

That they are there, however, is not enough. To ensure your company’s fortune, you have to figure out who they are, how to help them achieve their potential and how to keep them around. These corporate MVPs should not be neglected.

There are stars all around you … but how can you find them?

Human-resources experts estimate that 5% to 10% of your workers have star quality. HR by Numbers, a consulting firm in Cambridge Ont., helps companies systematically identify them. In doing so, employees are judged on current performance, behaviour and potential.

But the latter is most important, says HR by Numbers president Claude Balthazard. Too often employers are preoccupied with current performance and neglect the possibility of what could be.

How do you judge an employee’s potential? Every manager has different criteria, but one thing consistent with high-potential employees is that they learn quickly and adapt well to change. Says Balthazard: “The trajectory of people who have potential is usually on a steep incline.”

Margaret Butteriss, a Canadian living in Boston and co-author of the book Corporate MVPs, says there are several characteristics usually present in elite employees:

  • They’re always looking at how to improve the way things are done.
  • They attract other talented people who want to work with them and learn.
  • They can succeed almost anywhere regardless of management styles and corporate cultures.
  • They are team players.

Ultimately however, measuring potential in an employee is highly subjective. That’s why Balthazard encourages a collaborative approach by management in singling out those who have it. If your firm has a small management team — or if it’s only you at the top — consider hiring a consultant to help your evaluation.

Now that you’ve determined who your top players are, how should you develop their talents?

High achieving employees learn by doing, says Balthazard. Top employees should be eased into a role of prominence at the company by trying out leadership positions in different divisions.

While sending employees for off-site training or executive MBAs can be valuable, stars often gain their most valuable experience on the job rather than in a classroom.

But don’t forget, though these star employees are smart and capable, developing them still includes managing them. “Sometimes companies think, ‘They’re big boys and girls’ and just leave them,” says Butteriss. “A number of MVPs we talked to for the book said, ‘We’re human too. We need to be assigned. We need to be actively managed. We need to know that somebody is interested in us.'”

That said, be careful not to micromanage these workers because it can stifle what they have to offer and make them want to leave.

Now you’ve got your stars firing on all cylinders. How do you keep them from jumping ship?

To keep the best, salary and benefits “have to be at a level that it makes it a non-issue,” says Balthazard. But when it comes to high-achieving individuals, they tend to be motivated by challenge and opportunity more than anything else.

Butteriss agrees that consistently challenging your stars is the best way to retain them. “They can never just sit in a maintenance role, ever,” she says. Both experts say smaller companies need to put extra effort into coming up with a variety of assignments that can keep star employees challenged for several years.

Accept the inevitable

No matter how well the star is managed, there’s a strong possibility they’ll eventually be lured to greener pastures. Nevertheless, it’s still worthwhile to invest in these people, says Balthazard, because they’ll help set standards for future staff and make a positive impact on the company’s reputation.

Read other pointers on How To contribute to your business success!

© 2004 Derek Abma

Originally appeared on PROFITguide.com