Help High Potentials Recover From Missteps

When a star performer stumbles in a new assignment, there are two decisions to be made. Organizational leaders make the first one: “Should we give the employee a second chance?” With an affirmative choice, the employee makes the second choice: “Will I give myself a second chance?”

The company’s second chance decision is made up of a number of affirmative elements, such as:

• The talented employee’s lack of acceptable performance in the current role is not due to an ethical lapse.
• In the long run, the skills and competencies to succeed are there, but the present job needs something else.
• There is still solid support from key stakeholders and sponsors.
• The second chance role inside the organization is a better option for all concerned.
• The employee will recover, with the ambition, innovation and self-confidence shown in prior roles.

It isn’t uncommon after a series of successful stretch assignments for a shooting star to hit the wall. Self-doubt may follow as the regular A-level talent sees a report card with much lower marks. Smart talent managers in these save situations carefully guide the employee to regain performance traction and self-confidence in specific phases.

The first rebound phase comes with a conversation about changing jobs. Managers should be direct and clear on the need for a change. Bosses are understandably nervous about providing negative feedback to a high-potential employee. They fear a negative reaction, which may result in the employee believing he or she has failed in such a way that career support has been lost, and that future prospects are better outside the company.

While that is a risk, the employee knows current performance is falling short and generally appreciates being told the truth rather than having to buy into a sugar-coated story about the need for change. Further, there are valuable lessons to learn in the stretch assignment that resulted in the stumble. Obscuring the facts eliminates potential growth and may plant the seeds for a blind-spot that becomes a derailment later in the career.

The point is to deliver the message and conduct the conversation to show respect, empathy and support toward the employee. The key is to help the employee give him or herself a second chance. A rebound in self-confidence and lessons in resiliency are set in motion in the first meeting. The employee needs to hear that the change in role is the result of careful consideration and that support will continue.

The second rebound phase is the early journey in the new role. Employees will sense and internalize the signals that will either rebuild or tear down self-confidence. While timing may necessitate a holding pattern slot to provide movement out of a failing situation, it’s much better for the next role to provide a high level of challenge and engagement.

Early success in the rebound role can reinforce the employee’s efforts to regain positive momentum and resonates well with the organization. It reminds the entire workforce of the employee’s value. If a holding pattern role is the only option, then work quickly to find a more suitable role; otherwise you risk losing the employee, who sees the career progress clock ticking loudly and views the new assignment as losing time.

Positioned skillfully, a useful way to show support is to demonstrate investment in ongoing development. Sponsorship to a high-profile executive education program is one way to show commitment. A related step may be to provide specific training to shore up a deficiency in needed competencies, such as strategic thinking, influence and technical mastery.

Another early signal is the quality of support from sponsors and other key organization stakeholders. Ongoing mentoring and key management visibility in the new role sends the right signal: We value you and believe this new role will be important to the organization and your career.

All the messages need to align for a talented high potential to recover. The work of a talent management leader is to orchestrate decisions and help the employee decide to make the most of the second chance.

Kevin D. Wilde is the vice president and chief learning officer at General Mills and author of Dancing with the Talent Stars. He can be reached at