Mentoring Program for High Potential Employees

Good leaders exceed their goals.  Great leaders do so while developing and promoting high caliber talent.

To be a great leader, and to be a developer of talent, you must have a plan in place to mentor your high potential employees.  Below is a six-week plan I have developed that has served me well through the years.

I break this program into six, one-hour sessions that are held weekly. The ground rules are we don’t discuss the business of the day.  There are to be no distractions. This time is for mentoring.  Also, everything shared is shared in confidence.

While I think the topics below are important, because they share lessons that are important to me, I don’t claim that they are right for every manager.  The manager needs to tell their story, and how they drive to success.  If the employee is interested in reaching their full potential, they will be having these types of conversations with many leaders and developing their tool box that way.  You can’t be expected to provide all the answers.

What you can be expected to do is take an interest in the development of your employee, and provide a forum for growth.  This is one of the most critical functions of a leader.

Mentoring Session #1: What Are You All About?

As a leader, it is very important you understand the principles that will drive your actions.  Everyone is different, and as a result there are an infinite number of ways to accomplish the same goal.  What is important is that a leader understands how he is going to run his team.

I want to make sure the employee I am mentoring takes the time to do some self-evaluation, and understands their own personal strengths and motivations.  It is very difficult to lead others without an understanding of yourself.

To explain, I share what is important to me.

I preach three things to my team: integrity, customer service and ownership.

I tell my teams that we are going to do business the right way.  Even if we lose, we are going to lose by being honest and maintaining our values.  It is more important to me that we act with integrity at all times than winning.

I also stress customer service.  We are going to outwork our competition by taking care of our customers.  When they call, our answer is yes.  We don’t care what their problem or issue is, we are going to do everything in our part to take care of them.

Finally, I stress ownership.  I like accountability.  We all know whatever the customer needs is our responsibility.  If anything goes wrong, I expect the person on my team to own it and fix it.  The mentality of ‘it’s not my job’ or ‘someone else screwed this up’ is never acceptable.  I expect everyone on my team to own their business.

I always want my team to think along the line of those traits.  I want them to display those attributes. This is how we will conduct our business.

While integrity, service and ownership will serve as our mission statement, my #1 priority will always be taking care of my team.

I am a firm believer that any success the team has is a by-product of how well we treat our employees.

A lot of leaders say their people are their most valuable asset and their #1 priority, but their actions don’t always match their words.  Also, many leaders don’t really know what it means to take care of their people.

To take care of my team I do or have done the following things:

  • I make sure everyone on the team is compensated fairly.  Too often organizations pay their new hires the market rate for the position, but the employees that have been in the company a long time are underpaid.  While on the surface this looks like the company is getting the better end of the deal because they are paying key employees less than they are worth; that practice always ends up costing the company in the end.

It costs the company either from poor performance because the employee feels underappreciated or the employee ends up leaving the company.  The result of the employee leaving the company is often you end up over-paying for their replacement.

The quickest way for a new manager to endear himself to the new team is to fix injustices of the past.

  • Along those same lines, it is the manager’s responsibility to put the members of the team in the greatest position to maximize their bonuses.  The manager wantsthe employee to maximize their incentive bonus.  If the employee is maximizing their bonus they are exceeding expectations – this is exactly what the company desires.  That not only helps them, that helps the manager.  On top of that, you will have a happy employee because they are winning and making the most money possible.  All are great things.
  • Further when it comes to compensation, a good manager will create incentive programs to ensure their employees have additional ways to gain perks.  Many companies have reward portals for managers to recognize their employee’s performance.  A good manager can create trip promotions, or incentives to win promotional items.  Good managers are always looking for out-of-the-box ways to take care of their people.
  • When I was hired for my current position, the organization I was tasked to lead did not look like a world class team.  They were a sales team, but didn’t look the part.

One of the first things I did was drop several grand to outfit everyone with top notch shirts and jackets.  This wasn’t a cheap endeavor, but it was critical for me.  Now, not only does the team look world class, they also feel world class.  This was a key for improving employee morale.

  • I also ruthlessly fired poor performers.  I inherited a few individuals that did not fit my vision of what we needed. Some did not have the integrity I desired.  A few were not the type of caliber that I needed for our organization to reach their goals.  So I put them on performance plans and cut them.

A very interesting thing happened as a result.  The rest of the team was very thankful because they knew better than I did how these underperformers were holding them back.  These guys were a drag on the team.  The created drama and extra work for everyone.  And because of their poor performance, they brought down everyone’s incentive pay.

If you want to have a world class team, you need to have world class individuals on it.  Don’t delay the inevitable.  Cut the dead weight and move on.  This is one of the best ways you can take care of your contributors.

  • I am also very good at recognizing performance.  If someone on my team does something exceptionally well, or if someone on my team has a big win, I will send them a note congratulating them.  Further though, I will copy my superiors on the email.

The copying superiors is the key.  That way the employee sees that they are being recognized at the upper executive level.  That way they know their efforts are recognized and appreciated.

  • I’m a big believer in camaraderie.  I get that from my military days.  We are much stronger as a team than as individuals.  As such, I make every Monday an ‘office day’.  The majority of my team can work from their home offices to do their job, but it is important that relationships are formed amongst the members of the team.  The best way to form those relationships is by interactions in person.

I also hold a quarterly off-site meeting.  That is where I will review the business and lay out the strategy for the next quarter.  As importantly though, we will have a team building event.  The team always looks forward to these meetings because they know it will be a good time.

As a leader, be sure you understand what you are all about.  Then, make sure your actions follow your beliefs.

Mentoring Session #2: How Do You Drive Behavior?

For the second session, I discuss how to get employees to do what you want and need them to do. Motivating people to exceed expectations is challenging for new managers.  Understanding how you can incentivize your team to achieve is a valuable skill.

I read a text book on organizational behavior once and a few stories in that book really stuck out to me.

The first discusses smoking.  Smoking is expensive, it makes you and your clothes stink and will eventually kill you.  So why do people do it?

The answer is because of the immediate benefit smokers get from smoking.  They almost instantly get the nicotine hit they need after taking a puff.

The second story discusses bowling.  Why would someone voluntarily want to move a heavy object over and over again?  This sounds more like work than fun, yet people love doing it.

The reason is the immediate response after their turn.  They get positive reinforcement from their friends, and their score is posted and visible for all to see.

Those two stories lie at the heart of how to motivate teams.  There needs to be an immediate benefit for the right behavior, and it needs to be tracked and praised.

That little nugget of information can tell you why a lot of promotions don’t work. How many times have you seen a promotion that requires the individual to do something in order to win an entry into a raffle?  That doesn’t motivate as the return isn’t immediate.  Or how many times have you seen a promotion that requires months of effort to win some award?  That isn’t successful for the same reason.

It is like weight loss.  It is so hard to lose weight because the right behavior for losing weight isn’t rewarded immediately.  If you skip that piece of cake, you instantly don’t become skinnier.  If you go to the gym once, you don’t magically lose a pant size.  The reward is often months away and requires the proper behavior consistently over that time.  This is very hard to achieve.

A great promotion is the McDonald’s Monopoly game (even though it was rigged).  McDonald’s incentivized the proper behavior (buying McDs) and gave an immediate reward (game pieces).  These game pieces were tracked on a board which motivated customers to purchase more food to get more game pieces.  It was brilliant.

I’ve used this knowledge to get my teams to achieve.

In my first corporate job I managed a team of manufacturing engineers.  I had nine engineers working for me that were responsible for the nine production lines in the plant. These were the people responsible for making the manufacturing lines in our plant more efficient.  The way our team was graded was by how much cost we drove out of the manufacturing process.

The team struggled to hit their goal.  I noticed that the team was always chasing these huge opportunities that would provide substantial payoffs, but took forever to accomplish.  As a result, we were missing a lot of the low-hanging fruit in the form of easy opportunities.

So I instituted a promotion to turn things around.  I informed the team that I did not care about the dollar amount of the projects.  I cared about the number of completed projects – regardless of amount.  A million dollar project would be treated the same as a hundred dollar project.

To incentivize the team, I would award a $20 gift certificate immediately at the completion of a project.  Further, I put a scoreboard out in the office area for all to see.  People outside our department could walk by and see our progress.

The results were profound.  The team was highly motivated to complete new projects, which was the behavior I was after.  The number of projects created grew by 15x.

It was great to see the synergies created amongst the team as well.  For example, one of the engineers came up with a project to redesign the shipping pallet we used.  Instead of using a 2 x 6 board, they used 2 x 4s.  This simple change resulted in about $2000 of annual savings for her product line.  However, she was able to share this idea with the others on the team.  The other eight engineers copied her idea (and were rewarded in doing so).  The result was another $2000 of annual savings per production line or another $16000 total.  I traded $180 in gift certificates for $18000 in annual savings.  That is a pretty good return on investment.

Because of this example and hundreds more like it, we were able to triple our annual goal.  And because of the nature of what we did, our contributions fall directly to the bottom line as profit for the company.  The result was our team was responsible for 20% of the plant’s profit that year.  That got me a promotion.

I’ve copied this exact formula in every leadership role I’ve had.  I’ve also copied it in my personal life.

I coached my 4 year-old kid’s soccer team.  It is very challenging to get 4 year-olds to do anything with any consistency.  To get them motivated, I put them in a line.  I told them to score a goal.  They all eagerly ran to the goal and kicked their ball in.  The reward was the team parent was there to give them a skittle.  Then we scored another goal, and got another skittle.

We repeated this every practice.  By the end of the season our team was so trained on scoring goals that we annihilated our opponents.  Our opponents were simply trying to get their kids to pay attention to where the ball was.  Our kids were like a tsunami after the ball because they had been trained on scoring goals.

A few more thoughts on motivating behavior.  None of this works if the reward isn’t something that the employee values.  For example – if the reward was tickets to a hockey game, but the employee hates the thought of going to a game, then the incentive won’t encourage the type of behavior you are looking for.

Finally, it helps to put timeline on your incentive programs.  You want action, and you want it now.  A deadline helps accelerate the team.  This also gives you the opportunity to update your programs to get even bigger output out of your team.

Driving behavior is very tricky – especially for a new leader.  This is a great topic for a mentoring session.

Mentoring Session #3: Are You Prepared for Your Next Opportunity?

For the third session, I challenge the employee with the question ‘Are you prepared for your next opportunity?’

Most of the time, I get a feeble response saying yes.  Then I ask why.

In most instances, I get a very subjective answer.  I am told about the quality of their relationships. Or how good they did with this or that project.  Subjective tells me very little.

I go on to explain five ways a person can show they are ready for the next step in their career…

1 – You need to be able to sell yourself.  Most have no idea how to sell themselves.

The key is being able to be able to quantify achievements.

In almost every situation in the corporate world those achievements should be associated with dollars.  Corporate America cares about dollars earned or dollars saved.  Every other metric is a by-product of that.

2 – Are you committed to your self-development?

Do you read?  There are thousands of books on management and leadership.  Make it a point to read a few of them.  I once heard that you get one point in life for coming up with your own idea, but you get two points for stealing someone else’s idea.  By reading, you can steal the ideas from the brightest minds out there.

In addition, you need a mentor.  You need to learn from someone.  This is like having a personal coach.  They can guide you, as well as be an advocate for you.  I can’t stress enough how important this is.

Finally, you need to be continually learning and improving your craft.  Become the subject matter expert on your business.  At the end of the day the leader is the one who knows how to solve problems.  Arm yourself with as much knowledge as you can to become this person.

Always be learning.

3 – Can you communicate effectively?

How you speak publicly will determine how smart others will think you are.  For those who don’t hear you speak publicly, they will decide based on how well you write.

Practice speaking.  Get in front of a room as often as you can.  Prepare what you are going to say.  If it is an important presentation, bounce your thoughts off of someone you trust.

Most of your written communication will be through email.  There is a secret to email that most haven’t mastered.

In the first line – ask for what you need in as clear a language as possible.  More times than not, the person receiving the email will see the first line, read it and agree then move on.

If they do end up reading the body of your email, list bullet points to back up your question.  Always use proper grammar and avoid typos and spelling mistakes.

If you write like that, you will be appreciated and will be looked at favorably.

4 – What are you doing to build your network?

Many high achievers keep their head down, perform exceptionally at their job, and expect to be noticed.  They do a poor job of self-promotion, and would much rather spend their time tending to their daily business.

If you are career is important to you, you cannot make that mistake.

I suggest targeting a few different individuals in the organization that you respect or are in positions you are interested in.  Reach out, explain you are interested in learning from them, and ask if you can pick their brain.

They will be flattered and impressed that you reached out.  Build time in your schedule every-so-often to make sure that you make time to network.

5 – Have you mastered your current role?

There is nothing worse than an employee that looks to get promoted when they haven’t achieved in their current position.

Don’t put the cart before the horse.  You need to be very aware of your goals, and you need to exceed them.  That is the best way to prepare you for the next step.  That is the best way to get noticed.

Looking to get promoted before you have achieved in your current role will be doing the employee a disservice.  They need to make sure they gain the skills and experiences of their current position. This will make them stronger in the long run.

These five ways are great conversation starters to see if the employee is ready to take the next step in their career.

Mentoring Session #4 – Building a Team

Building a team is a critical function of a leader.  Get it right, and it is hard to fail.  Get it wrong, and it is hard to succeed.

The first step in building a team is making sure you create the proper team environment.  Culture is so important.  The manager’s leadership often will dictate how cohesive the team will be.

The manager must genuinely care about those on the team.  They aren’t just employees, they are more than that.  They are your partners to compete against your business enemies.  A manager must always have their best interests at heart.  They foundation for leadership is servitude, and a leader must serve those that work for him.

Further, the manager must create a winning environment.  Winning solves most problems.  Never lose focus on achieving your goals, and always make sure the team is clear on what the goals are.

The second step is to look internally.  To build the best team you need to first look at the people you already have.  Are they top talent?  Do they have the ability to get the team to the next level?

If they don’t, you need to be very proactive in removing them from your team.  This is hard, especially for new managers.  That doesn’t always mean firing the employee though.

I once had an employee who was a smart and was a hard worker, but she did not deliver the results we needed for the team to win.  We discussed this often, and on her annual review I rated her a low performer.  She cried.  I then explained that she would never be a high performer on my team as her skills did not match what the position needed.  She cried some more.  Then I explained to her that I found her another position internally that more closely matches with her strengths.  This would be a great career move for her.  Relieved, she hugged me.

At the end of the day she knew she was struggling.  She was miserable as a result.  I took the personal interest in putting her in the right spot, and she blossomed in the new role.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t always work.  There are times you need to cut a person loose.  When you do, be very clear why you are making that move, and make sure the data backs up your decision. When you make the decision though, don’t make it more painful than it has to be.  Be quick and be fair, and then move on.

The thing that will surprise you is this will gain you great favor with the rest of your team.  They know when someone is underperforming.  They know when is someone is dogging it.  If they are, that person is holding the team back.  The team will appreciate and respect you for getting rid of the dead wait.

The next step in building a team is bringing in high-level talent.  I love the following quote:

“If you always hire people who are smaller than you are, we shall become a company of dwarfs. If, on the other hand, you always hire people who are bigger than you are, we shall become a company of giants.” — David Ogilvy.

A manager must always keep a list of people that they want to hire.  This list is built through networking conversations and through being aware of your market.  The leader must know who the competition is, and must always have a pulse of who is the top talent in the market.

Once those individuals are identified, then the challenge is recruiting them.

Top performers are probably very comfortable in their current position.  They are winning, and as mentioned earlier people that are winning are generally happy.

To recruit, you need to make sure you have something to sell.  There is no catch-all statement on how to recruit as what motivates each individual is different.

I would start my recruitment efforts by sell myself.  I am a hell of a leader passionate about developing talent and promoting that talent.  I also lead teams that win and maximize their performance incentives.  My pitch to high performers is I will guide and mentor you to prepare you for the next opportunity in your career.  Further, I will aggressively promote you to that next role as that is a self-serving benefit.

I want my team to be looked at as a developer of talent.  I want to spread my influence in the company by constantly bringing in top talent, and then promoting them to bigger and better things. That makes me look good as a leader, and it makes for a very high achieving team.

Realize though that the motivation for people to leave their current position will be unique to that individual.  That fact that the person is interested in your opportunity tells you that something is out there that bothers them.  You need to figure out what something is.

Below are some examples of situations that bothered people I recently hired:

  • Often, people who have been with a company for a long time are underpaid.  While that person has been rewarded for their loyalty with an annual 3% raise, the person who job-hops is compensated with a 20% pay raise every time they move.  This leads to the loyal employee being dramatically underpaid.
  •  High achievers want to win.  They want to be put in the best position to win.  If they don’t feel like they have the necessary support to win, then they will start looking around.
  •  Some people feel like they are pigeon-holed in their current role and aren’t seen as someone who has the ability to take the next step in their career. Be careful with these guys, as their current leadership could be right.  However, if they are overlooked, or if they perceive they are overlooked, this could be an opportunity.
  • Joining a Winning Team.  It is tough playing for the Cubs.  Everyone loves the Cubs, but they are losers.  Secretly most people in that position wonder what it would be like playing for the Yankees.  If your team is the Yankees, then you have an interesting opportunity to sell.  If you can combine the scrappy underdog mentality of the Cubs, with the resources and winning culture of the Yankees, then you can create something special.
  • Some people don’t like where they live.  Some people would love to move to where you live.  I recently hired a guy who was stuck in a big city and hated everything about it.  He was looking for a change of scenery.  Fortunately, I could provide it.

Building a team is so important.  This is the most important task of a manager.  This is an art, not a science.  Taking the time to learn and study this function will serve you well in your career.

Mentoring Session #5 – Employee Challenges & Challenging Employees

Managing employees is hard.  You will encounter unexpected challenges and situations more often than you would expect.  How you handle those situations will play a large role in dictating your success at leading your team.  Below are several examples of situations that I have handled that you may encounter as well:

Underperformers – When you inherit a team, chances are there will be an underperformer on it.  As a manager, you must figure out if this person is in the wrong position, or if they are in the wrong company.

If they are in the wrong company, you must cut that underperformer quickly.  A cancer only grows with time.  Be quick and be direct, and then move on.

There are several benefits.  Your team will see this, and they realize better than you that this person was an underperformer.  You will gain credibility with your team while also giving everyone a wake-up call that you mean business.

Further, your management will see your commitment to high standards, and will be impressed that you took the initiative to make your team better.

Wrong Position – When you have an underperformer, you must recognize if you have a underperformer because of ability or because they are in the wrong role.  If they are in the wrong role, it is your job to figure out how to get them in the right role.

I had a lady work for me who was in this situation.  She worked hard, was well-liked by her co-workers, but she could not deliver results.  As a result, she was an underperformer.  Recognizing this, I found another role for her in the company where she would be a better fit.

When I told her, she cried.  The stress and pressure of underperforming had been wearing on her. She knew she was struggling.  That she was given a second chance was like giving her a second lease on life.  She was now in a position to be successful, and she thrived in her new role.

It would have been a shame to remove her from the company when all she needed was a set of responsibilities that better matched her ability and talents.

Substance Abuse – Drugs and alcohol are more present than you probably think, and often they will affect the employee that you least expect.

Always be on the lookout for tell-tale signs of substance abuse:

  • Missing work
  • Being Late
  • Poor appearance
  • Shaking
  • Smelling of alcohol or drugs
  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Sweats
  • Moody
  • Awkwardly avoiding others
  • Inability to stay awake
  • Slipping job performance

Should you notice any of these symptoms, it is your responsibility to investigate.  Your first question needs to be to the employee.  State that you care about them, and then describe what you have noticed.  Then ask if they have a problem and need help.

Your next step needs to be to engage HR.  They will be able to guide you through the process of making sure the employee gets help if they have a problem.

This is tough and uncomfortable situation.  You need to have courage to try to help your employee. That said, it could be the most impactful thing you do in your job as a manager.

Personal Issues – Great managers care about their people.  That have relationships with their employees and are close enough to realize if they have problems.

While deployed in the military, I had case of a young employee who was going through marital issues.  He was depressed, and his work performance suffered.

I asked him the tough question: “are you going to hurt yourself?”.  He told me that he used to do that, and while he doesn’t think he would do that now he didn’t know for sure.

I was able to bring in experts to help him get through his difficult time because I had asked the hard questions to make sure I understood the situation.

Be sure to have a relationship with your employees.  Don’t be afraid to ask if everything is ok.  You can’t help solve a problem if you don’t know it is there.

Racial Issues – It is a shame, but there still are bigoted people in the world.  As a manager, you need to establish a clear policy on treating others with dignity and respect.  And you need to be clear that this is a zero tolerance policy.

I had an issue once where an employee told another employee something inappropriate on the phone.  He didn’t realize it, but he was on a speaker phone.  He deeply offended another individual who overheard the conversation.

When it was brought to my attention, I made ensure that what was alleged actually happened.  After confirmed, I engaged HR and we quickly removed this individual from the company.

When he was removed, I actually gave him a choice.  I explained that he was going to be fired for his actions.  However, he could choose to resign before that.  By choosing to resign, he gets to say he left on his own terms and it avoids the financial and legal situation for the company.

This was a cleaner solution to the company, and the employee still learned the life lesson.  That is what he chose to do.

There are some mistakes that just can’t be tolerated.  This is one of them.

High Performers – On the other end of the spectrum, you may have to challenge high performers.  It is easy to ignore those who are hitting their goals and achieving.  Most managers have all they can handle with their underperformers, and they don’t have the time or energy to address overperformers.

Everyone needs a push forward at times.  Just because someone is achieving doesn’t mean they are hitting their full potential.  It doesn’t mean they are immune from making mistakes.

I once had an employee that was 150% of goal.  However, he was that much over goal despite performing woefully at two different accounts.  I challenged him to grow at those accounts and not to be satisfied with his current performance.  By the end of the year he got both of those accounts on track and finished the year over 200% of goal.

This made a huge financial impact to him and the team.

At the end of the day it is the manager’s job to achieve their objectives.  Sometimes it is easier and more effective to get your achievers to achieve more than to get your underperformers to become average.

Dealing with employee issues is tough.  Every situation is unique, and there is no guide-book on how to address all issues.  Experience goes a long way, and I hope that by sharing some experience I had it will help the future leader I am mentoring.

Mentoring Session #6 – Always Planning for the Future

Good performers are able to react to the present and achieve their goals.  You can make a nice career with this mindset.  However, to be seen as exceptional, you must make your level of contribution transformative.

Put another way – you need to be someone who can innovate.  You must be able to react to business trends.  You need to win playing today’s game, but also develop a sense of how the game will be played in the future.

When I ran a manufacturing plant, I was always pushing to consolidate production lines to make them more efficient. Further though, I left the space created by these actions untouched so we’d have a large empty space in the middle of our production area.  This showed visitors that we could always do more, and we were seen as a team that knew how to use our resources wisely.

In another role, I was able to figure out how to utilize company resources in India to make a data entry task much more efficient.  What was once a logistical problem became a strength because now we were utilizing resources that could work while we slept.  This made us much more productive.

Probably the most important recognition I got in my career is I figured out a way to eliminate my own position.  I discovered some efficiencies where others were able to handle my responsibilities with a minimal amount of extra work.  This change saved a headcount, and highlighted that I was a team player looking to better the business.  I was recognized as a result.

What can your business do to become more efficient?  Are you able to be Netflix or are you Blockbuster?  Are you a Razr or an iphone?  Are you a taxi or are you and Uber?

Create a mindset where you think like this and you will be seen as a leader who can create an exponential impact on your organization.


Mentoring employees is a challenge, but is also incredibly rewarding.  Take the time to share what you know and what is important to you with future leaders in your company. Quite possibly this is the most important task you can accomplish to make a profound impact on your organization.

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