How to lose your graduates and hipos

It's been reported that a staggering 55% of people on High Potential programmes leave their organisations within 5 years.
Published 18th January 2020 SHL Talent Measurement research reported that a staggering 55% of people on High Potential programmes leave their organisations within 5 years. This in itself is a shocking figure, as many organisations spend huge amounts of time and money identifying the key people to retain, and see creating a high potential programme as key to retaining them. So why do they frequently leave shortly afterwards? Our data gives additional insights into why this might be. Our latest research suggests that the ‘received wisdom’ on careers that your HiPos have already been exposed to is misleading – and can encourage them to jump ship for opportunities elsewhere.

As you probably know, one of our on-going pieces of action research has been to interview thousands of successful people across many sectors, to find out the underlying patterns on what REALLY works in terms of driving a successful career. We do a lot of work with graduates, and with this group there is often a world weary percentage who feel “You can’t teach us anything about careers, we got all that at university. You want us to network and have a 5 year plan, right?”

So we started giving out a career quiz, asking both graduates and older people identified as high potentials, to guess the results of our research before we presented it. Our main aim was to jolt people out of their complacency, and to demonstrate that we had a lot of useful information to impart. But we didn’t expect quite the result we got.

The Career Quiz is designed so that if you picked answers at random, you would achieve a score of 23%.

So far, the average score for all respondents is 9% correct answers. Not one group has achieved more than an average of 16% correct answers – lower than random! That is, they are not just ignorant of career management facts. Worse, they believe they know what to do – and they are wrong far more often than they are right.

What is even more puzzling is that high potentials get these scores on the quiz even though they have already, as pre-course work, done a structured interview with one person they themselves regard as successful. And we collect the data from these interviews, with overall results that are invariably in line with our research data. It seems that when high potentials listen to successful people talking about their careers, they tend to miss or gloss over key pieces of data that don’t fit with their pre-conceived ideas.

This suggests that high potentials are exposed to a lot of WRONG information about how to drive a successful career. They believe they know what to do to be successful – and often that misguided advice will cause them to move out of your organisation.

The following results should worry any organisation that is not developing the career knowledge and skills of people in their talent pools.
  • 96% of high potentials believed that successful people only stayed in organisations for 5 years before moving on.
  • 62% of people believed that to be successful, you need to move organisation every 3-4 years.
  • 13% of people thought you need to move every 2-3 years.
From our research into over 2000 successful people in many sectors, this is just not true. Moving organisation may get you a small pay increase. But our data shows that internal moves are at the heart of long-term career success. And there are very specific actions successful people take to attract opportunities and drive successful internal careers – actions that go far beyond the usual generic ‘career brand’ advice.

There’s more.
  • 99% of high potential cannot identify the most common way that successful people first hear of jobs (32% of key jobs that shaped their career came from this source).
  • 46% think that the most common way successful people hear of key jobs is to be proactive and talk to people about jobs outside their own area (in reality, this delivers 5% of key jobs).
  • 36% believe it is hearing about jobs from their network (in reality, only 10% of key jobs are found this way). In addition, the great majority of high potentials see networking as important – but don’t know the key actions they need to take in order to activate their network as a source of jobs. They build a network ‘because that’s what you have to do’ – but it’s almost useless for their careers!
What else did we find?
  • 47% of high potentials believe that having a 3-5 year career plan is at the core of career success.
Yet our research shows that only 1 in 10 successful people have EVER had a career plan that looks 2 jobs ahead. Successful people are far more likely to say “I was just lucky, I was in the right place at the right time”. If this is true, it’s rather dispiriting, because it suggests you have little control over your career. However, when you probe the kind of ‘luck’ that successful people have, there is a consistent pattern of practical actions that they are taking on a daily basis – which makes it MORE LIKELY for them to be in the right place at the right time.

But are we teaching our graduates and high potentials these practical actions? If we told them to take an hour today to work on their career – would they know what to do? The only thing that most people think about is to brush up their CV – something that is as likely to take them out of the organisation as further forward in it!

In my view, giving talented people a ‘high potential’ label, and then not equipping them with hard facts and tactics to achieve career success is a recipe for disaster. It raises expectations, and creates a passive culture where people expect to be handed career opportunities on a plate. When they don’t immediately see rapid career progression, they will look to the job boards, or get poached by all the recruiters who are now targeting ‘passive candidates’ on LinkedIn (i.e. people not actively seeking an external role).

The Takeaway
If you are creating a talent programme, the very first place to invest money is in equipping your talented people to spot, create and seize career opportunities. That way, you get proactive candidates who take maximum advantage of all the opportunities your talent programme offers. Enhancing career skills will ensure that these talented people get into important roles where they can contribute more. This will aid progression, and progression leads to retention. Career skills training is therefore directly linked to the two most powerful metrics for measuring the success of your talent programme. Why would any talent programme NOT focus on giving state of the art career skills? Surely the first priority should be to equip people to drive internal careers – to deliver the maximum ROI?