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A Powerful Way HR Can Reclaim Millions for Your Company

A Powerful Way HR Can Reclaim Millions for Your Company

Over the last 15 years, through good economies (remember the New Economy?) and bad, I’ve been heartened to see that companies haven’t abandoned the pursuit of employee engagement.  All my IO psych friends continue to be busy surveying, measuring, counting, aggregating and advising on how to create dynamic, profitable organizations led by managers who know how to treat people decently. The business case for a culture of engaged employees is well established, and HR leaders wisely stay loyal to that ideal.

But then picture this:  During my workshops and speeches to managers and HR leaders, I always open by throwing out the question, “Who here can think of at least one employee who absolutely loves their work?”  Anyone?  Anyone? Crickets.

Now I get that a lot of us are reluctant to be the first to throw up our hands in a classroom setting (childhood lessons die hard, don’t they?).  And after a certain amount of prodding and cajoling from me, the conversation opens up and all sorts of names are offered up as examples of workplace passion. But, really, why the resistance?  My opinion:  When surveys have made it so easy for leaders to measure engagement in something of a faceless kind of way, we’re just not in the habit of looking at employees as individual representations of over-the-moon passion for the job.

An announcement from the American Management Association (AMA) last week might prove this: “Companies make half-hearted effort to spot high potentials.” Based on the results of a survey of 500 senior managers and executives (again, with the surveys), only 8% said that their efforts to find the stars are “systematic.” 44% said their efforts are mostly informal; 42% report combination of informal and systematic; 6% don’t even know.

Here’s what has to be the next step in the evolution of employee engagement story – the focus on the individual high passion/high potential and what keeps that person in the saddle.  In my years as a journalist specializing in HR and then a consultant specializing in the stories behind employee engagement, I’ve interviewed hundreds of people who deeply love their work. And I guarantee you, not one of my passionate interviewees ever mentioned appreciating any of the elements on the Gallup Q12.  In fact, more than a few of my interviewees have done quite nicely without having a best friend at work, praise in the last seven days, or even knowing what’s expected of them.  They know what they expect from themselves, which is often a much higher bar than their job description.

Am I saying that the Q12 elements aren’t necessary to creating a workplace culture of high performers? Except for that business about having a best friend at work (whatever that means), the Q12 elements are essential emotional and functional ingredients for just the basic expectations of performance excellence.

So how do you take performance over the top and really capture that attention, passion, contributions, and loyalty of the so-called “high potentials?” This is where HR can provide extraordinary value and fill a big, gaping need that no one else in the organization is claiming responsibility for.

Create a workplace-wide culture in which high potentials are noticed and given the chance to speak fully from both their hearts and their heads. When you do this, you’re putting your company in the position of reclaiming millions of dollars that would otherwise be wasted in the form of differentiating innovations that are dismissed by non high-potential managers; brilliant ideas that go unexpressed because "what would be the point?", a talent diaspora where your high potentials start looking for an organization that actually gets them (or starting their own enterprise that will compete with yours); or through the dreaded, damaging behaviors of the actively disengaged that Gallup warns about.

Here’s how:

Recognize the fact that high potentials aren’t engaged by surveys – they’re engaged by their own sense of personal mission or journey.  There’s a reason why there’s no bestseller called, Fill Out That Survey and the Money Will Follow, but Do What You Love and the Money Will Follow remains a staple on the job seeker’s bookshelf. Likewise, have you ever heard of What Color Is Your Survey?  I think not.

The one commonality of all the people I’ve interviewed and of all the people who have gone through my team-building workshop is this: They recognize that the job that they love and do so well in makes their life make sense in some deep, profound way.  Every story I have heard can be summed up this way:  “All that I have experienced, learned, even suffered through, has led me to this point.  And now I see how my past has prepared me to contribute something even greater and more valuable than just a resume or skills set.”

Train your managers to get in the habit of identifying their most passionate employees.  There should never be crickets in a roomful of leaders who have just been asked to name at least one direct report who loves his or her job.  First, if your leaders really can’t name any high-passion/high-potential employee, you’ve got even bigger problems. But let’s assume that these people just aren’t in the habit of looking at their employees through the lens of “is this person a high potential/high passion employee?”

Passionate employees aren’t hard to spot. They provide above-and-beyond quality of work. They know who their customers are and why it’s important to serve them well. They’re not always pleasant to work with – some don’t suffer fools easily. They’re not always happy in that “yay, we have foosball!” kind of way.  Some can be downright cranky in the face of stupid management tricks (remember, the passion pendulum can swing both ways – it’s the oomph behind that passion that your managers should be looking for). But they know what they’re doing, why they’re doing it on a level of passion that is unmistakably different than their peers.

Build a special body of knowledge around leading high potential/high passionate people. Start regular manager discussions around who these passionate people are, what it’s like to work with them, what special management skills are necessary to lead and grow this talent. High-passion employees may not necessarily be high-maintenance people. But managers of high-passion employees need each other’s support in identifying, leading and keeping these people at their highest potential.

Recruit your high-potential/high-passion employees to be your internal consultants.  These people have knowledge, stories and insights that overflow the banks of their own job descriptions. Let them contribute elsewhere, using their influence to infuse the rest of the organization with the mission-critical spirit that you want everyone to share.  Here’s one of my favorite examples from my own archives:  An employee relations manager talks about her a-ha moment when she connected customer service with the way she treated an employee.  Go ahead, watch the video now.  I’ll wait.

If you have to start somewhere, start with celebrating the passion of high-potentials in HR.  More often than not, your employees get their first experience as to how sincere your business really is about customer service by the way they’re treated by HR.  So the first manager who needs to identify the high-potential/high-passion employees would be … you! And passionate HR professionals really do deserve to be given the chance to put voice to their enthusiasm for their work. (In fact, you could probably use some recognition yourself.)

Having trouble believing that HR professionals can live the day-in-and-day-out of the people side of business and still keep their professional pilot light lit?  Watch the videos here, here, and here.

Based on the AMA survey results, businesses are flushing millions of dollars of competitive, differentiating value down the drain by not paying active attention to those people already in their ranks who really can achieve their success objectives.

Be the one who drives the mission of creating a passion-driven culture by identifying your high-potential, passion-driven employees throughout the entire organization.  What better way to use your own passion for the people side of your enterprise?

If you like this article, you'll want to check out Martha's books:

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Martha I. Finney is the author of The Truth About Getting the Best From People, and a consultant specializing in employee engagement. For a free consultation on how you can build a vacation-friendly workplace culture, email Martha at

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One Comment

  1. Great article Martha!


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