There’s a difference between high performing employees and those with advanced leadership potential, says human resources expert Krishna Powell, and companies need both in order to succeed.

Krishna Powell.

Recognizing which is which though, and giving each of them what they need is the path to profitability, she says.

Powell is the speaker at a meeting of the Human Resources Management Association of Princeton on Monday September 9 from 5:30 to 8 p.m. at the Hyatt Regency in Princeton. Tickets are $55, $45 for members. For more information, visit hrma-nj.shrm.org.

“I call it the hidden profit potential,” Powell says. “Most businesses overlook or forget the value of their high performing versus high potential employees. There is a difference between the two and they should not be managed the same because of what their goals are as individuals.”

A high performing employee is someone who is great at his or her job and is happy there. “High performers are the ones who keep your customers satisfied, be it face to face or behind the scenes. It’s a person who knows how to get the job done and you don’t have to tell them twice how to do it. They’re always looking to get better and better at what they do.” These workers, she says, are happy doing what they do, and don’t want to leave the job they’re good at for a management position.

High potential employees have all the skills of the former, but they also have the ability to lead. They might be not only competent, but also looked up to by others in their team. They want to advance. “It is imperative that you figure out which is which,” she says.

Powell says it’s important to keep these two types of employee happy because they are the core personnel who will see the company through a recession or hard times even when lower performing employees are laid off.

Identifying such employees requires keeping a close eye on what is going on and talking to everyone. It will become apparent who is doing their job well and going above and beyond, Powell says. Of those high performers, she says, about 5 to 10 percent are high potential employees who could be future leaders. The amount may vary among organizations, but Powell says the key thing to recognize is that not everyone is cut out for leadership.

This realization may seem simple, but it has profound implications for how personnel are managed. Traditionally, the highest performers were offered leadership positions whether or not they wanted them. Those who don’t want promotions are sometimes driven out of institutions or see their careers stifled despite being good at what they do and contributing greatly to their employers.

Keeping high performing employees happy does not always mean just offering them raises. The best way to find out what they want, she says, is to talk to them. Some may value various job perks more than they would a salary increase. For example, she says, one might want the opportunity to work from home one day a week, while another might want to work four 10-hour shifts during a summer slow season and take Fridays off, instead of the usual schedule.

Powell says flexibility like this especially valued by younger workers who have seen their baby boomer parents sacrifice their lives outside of the office to advance their careers only to be cast aside by their employers the moment they were no longer useful. “They say, ‘I’m going to do my best but I’m not going to give all my parents gave,’” Powell says.

She says younger workers also value the ability to spend their lunch breaks however they please, or to not be bothered by work phone calls while on vacation, in contrast to older workers who may look down on someone doing yoga at lunch time instead of eating at their desk, or who expect to be interrupted by work calls outside of work hours. “I have had baby boomers say they haven’t taken a vacation in two or three years — that they have X amount of vacation days saved up, as if this were a badge of honor… young people are saying, ‘This is not going to be me.’”

Instead of giving out raises, organizations can reward employees with things that matter to them. At one company Powell visited, this meant giving workers paid time to spend volunteering for their communities. That gave some parents the chance to help out with their children’s organizations like the Boy Scouts instead of being unable to help because they were at work.

Powell has seen workers spend 30 years going from one organization to another as top contributors who didn’t want positions with more responsibility and stress. “An organization just lost all that knowledge that you can’t pay for or find in a book because they wouldn’t let a person step down or step back,” she says.

Powell grew up knowing what it meant to work hard thanks to examples set by her homemaker mother, who managed family affairs despite battling illness, and a father who was a blue collar worker and a minister. The family lived in Trenton, but Powell’s career in human resources has taken her to Baltimore and other cities. She worked for Merrill Lynch, Blue Cross Blue Shield and other Fortune 500 companies during her 25 year corporate HR career. Today she is a consultant and helps companies across various industries improve their HR strategies.

“There is a widening gap between leadership and employees,” she says. “My role is to be a person standing in that gap that keeps these two groups connected. Businesses flourish if you take care of your employees and take care of your customers.”

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