High potential exists in every employee. Skilled managers understand that to win the business game, it’s not necessarily about hiring the right people but rather understanding each employee’s personality, behavior, and motivation to structure the best teams for optimal results. One can recruit top performers continually, only to have them leave for greener pastures or stick around just long enough to pad their resumes.

Therefore, assessing talent potential should be viewed through the lens of maximizing current employees, now, and for the future. For an organization’s long-term success, the wisest approach is to identify and cultivate career-oriented High Potential (HiPo) employees; who, research shows, deliver 2-6 times more return than average workers. It turns out to be a heck of a lot easier than managing and training an entirely new crop of recruits every couple of years.

What Is A High Potential Employee?

Organizations vary on their definitions of a HiPo employee, but most agree that the top 3-5% of their total talent pool are HiPos. Distinguished by their combination of abilities to understand and execute tasks, commitment to forwarding the organization's progress, and personal motivational drive, HiPos are ambitious and driven to succeed.

Interestingly, HiPos raise the bar for others, as well as themselves. They see situations develop and act rather than wait for permission or instruction by management. Business, they understand, is changeable, by definition. They are risk-takers who properly evaluate risks, form action plans and inspire others to follow.

Because they hunger for knowledge, and there is generally so much available relevant information, HiPos’ continuous learning propels their own careers while simultaneously benefitting their organizations. HiPos are not arrogant and invite mentors to provide insight and guidance.

Understanding High Performance vs. High Potential

Understanding High Performance vs. High Potential

Since talent levels range so widely among employees, managers who perform at a top-level understand this reality. Next, they have to determine which individuals have the highest potential. After that, managers must determine how much allocation of time, energy, and resources to these individuals is the right balance compared with nurturing others for a more holistic high-functioning work environment.

The trap to avoid is confusing high-performing employees with high potential employees. High performance is focused on what they’re doing NOW, whereas potential is a measure of peoples’ FUTURE capability. Managers can evaluate employees’ performances over time and/or utilize tests. If project work requires mathematical skills, an actual test of math knowledge will better pinpoint the best employee for the task. This holds true for any skill, whether “mechanical,” “artistic,” or anything in-between.

The litmus test example for a high-performance employee versus a high potential employee is seen in the archetypal sales role. Managers often mistake a salesperson’s growing numbers as an indicator of his or her potential to be the Sales Director. Instead, there’s a crash and burn that occurs when those salespeople are moved out of their comfort zones. They realize that their skills are not transferrable to teaching and mentoring. Those high-performance salespeople who have been promoted to Sales Director roles often quit. They’re simply not high potential employees.

Personality Traits of HiPo Employees

Personality Traits of HiPo Employees

The T-Shaped Professional theory states that the capital letter “T” represents a HiPo employee. The vertical stroke is associated with his or her particular expertise in a specific field or industry. The horizontal stroke at the top represents a collaboration with experts in multiple other areas. A HiPo employee will apply any learned knowledge to further the organization’s mission. Owners of companies may well promote the replacement of Superman’s “S” with the Letter “T” when it comes to defining the characteristics of a HiPo employee.

Organizations have shown that there are three core HiPo employee critical traits:

1) Emotional Intelligence

When individuals can accurately recognize emotions in others and respond appropriately, they are showing an ability to excel at interpersonal relationships. This essential aspect of teams moves EI to the top of the HiPo list. Importantly, emerging leaders don’t necessarily mirror the people with whom they interact. Instead, they can show firmness or empathy, depending upon the situation. In this way, individuals can influence project stakeholders and propel teams forward and sculpt the opinions of fellow workers.  

Other EI traits include tact and artfully mediating situations by keeping people focused on solutions and not on the blame game that can appear all too often in office politics. Depending upon the particular job in question, salespeople and managers require a higher EI due to their interpersonal relations and frequent dealings with others.

2) Agile learning of new skills

HiPo employees must demonstrate an ability to seek out and develop expertise for their future roles and effectiveness. Whether or not the required level of learning is possible is based upon a combination of various factors. Successful individuals combine:

  • Motivation (for self and ability to inspire others to action)
  • IQ or cognition/ critical thinking
  • Personality (e.g., ability to improvise, persevere and adapt)
  • Desire to lead
  • A healthy dose of good common sense

3) Motivation

It is important to note that, without motivation to exceed expectations and work hard to achieve goals, the other factors associated with learning fall away. Ambition is not a dirty word, so long as individuals don’t unfairly diminish others in the process.

Until recently, standard personality tests did not measure motivation. At Trust Well Network, our Core Motivation Analysis (CMA) assesses peoples’ desire to withstand physical and/or psychological distress as part of their high-demand jobs. Peoples’ automated results also provide actionable insights into whether individuals have the “right stuff” to seize opportunities and take on responsibilities that inevitably occur in the workplace.

Measuring and Evaluating Your Employees’ High Potential

Managers must fundamentally know WHO the people are that they are managing. The better they understand each person’s basic motivations, traits – and even life experiences allows them to use the past to more accurately predict the future. Further, managers can place people in the best roles possible, producing happiness for them and productivity for the organization.

The entire process of evaluation begins with selecting (hiring) people and ranges across six main activities and resulting in either reward(s) or punishment(s).

  • Select. As best as possible, you’ve got to identify people who can perform their roles and ideally grow with the elements of SKAP over time.
  • Measure. Set goals for which the employee can meet, exceed or fail at performance expectation levels.
  • Track. Monitor performance over time.
  • Interact. Feedback to the employer as well as interactions and communications with fellow employees.
  • Reward. High performance should receive recognition, whether monetary, a valued parking spot, or other forms of a perk.
  • Discipline. Poor performance should be reprimanded. Repeated violations may require heavier penalties, including firing.

How to Develop High Potential Employees Once You Have Identified Them

How to Develop High Potential Employees

Naturally, companies face budgets and time restrictions when determining long-term star performers. You’re on the right track to a speedier result by not just identifying but helping to create high potential employees when you apply TWN’s approach of “How to...”

  • … give new and varied assignments to people to sustain their interest.
  • … create synergy by teaming up individuals with others to leverage their different skills.
  • … establish a learning environment in which people are encouraged to ask questions and grow their individual bases of knowledge.

Organizational and industrial psychologists agree that these four SKAP items are at play with all employees, including HiPos:

  • Skills – What you do (BEHAVIOR)
  • Knowledge – Information that is known and can continually be taken in via ongoing training (THINKING)
  • Ability – Current level of performance
  • Personality – You walk in the door with these basically unchangeable traits

SKAP applies to both the individual and the job. The better the match, the better the outcome in improving future performance and task success.

Kaizen, a popular Japanese business movement in the 1980s, is an operations model that called for continuous improvement in manufacturing. Fast forward to 2021, and the most successful companies are focused on people, not machinery. Even with the expanding use of computers and artificial intelligence, people have to create programs, write algorithms and interpret data. Thus, the more reliable methods a company uses in assessing (new and existing) employees, the more likely employees will achieve defined results, set as goals by their managers.

With Millennials embedded in the workforce, the momentum has shifted from 50 years earns you a gold watch and a retirement package to 2-5 year “gigs” in which these workers are super-conscious of building skills they can take with them when they go. Great employers should go with the flow and maximize all their people while they’ve got them. The most effective managers find the few individuals who stand out from the crowd to drive them towards success and enhance their full potentials within the organization. Identifying agile employees, then testing them in real-world environments and teams enables HiPos to shine further.

When you develop your SKAP for future needs, you’re bound to have higher-performing, long-term employees. When a manager falls on keeping work stimulating for an employee’s SKAP, the likelihood that the person will leave for grander opportunities is raised. For the employees in question, this can mean better fulfillment, whether it is increasing their skillsets, maintaining control over their futures, or simply making more money. Often it’s a combination of these factors.

Assessing and Developing High Potentials

In business, it’s effectively a war to attract, train and sustain top talent – even in slow-growth sectors of the economy. When surveyed, fewer than 20% of US companies were secure in knowing that successors for key roles were readily available in their internal pipelines.

Programs geared at developing HiPos are all the rage and generally challenging to craft and maintain momentum. Organizations walk a tightrope of developing top performers for future roles versus utilizing their talents at the moment to achieve daily benchmarks. Also, regular contributors may be alienated by having not been selected for the fast-track.

Though there’s no cookie-cutter approach for creating effective, long-term HiPo programs, research – and Trust Well Network’s experience - suggests that these three activity sets are the good predictors of next-generation leadership.

  1. Establish clear strategic priorities for the organization’s growth;
  2. Meticulously choose HiPo candidates; then share selections with others within the organization to head off jealousies and clearly establish roles;
  3. Focus on retention: continuous development & attainable rewards.

Use a High Potential Identification Tool

Companies are best served by HiPos, who are grown from within a HiPo environment. First, though, company managers have to use defined metrics to measure not just high-performance but peoples’ potential to learn and apply mission-critical skills. Armed with assessment numbers and ratings about HiPos’ personalities, behaviors, and motivations, those managers can create win-win scenarios in a variety of real-world situations:

  1. Ensure the most talented workers receive positive reinforcement (praise, perks, and salary increases) to ensure longer (productive) duration at the organization
  2. Look to future business needs and incent workers who develop talents for what’s on the horizon instead of using existing skills for what’s occurring at the moment.
  3. Identify leaders on the rise and connect them via experiential and immersive training.
  4. Recognize that not all employees are high performers, but all team members must fulfill their roles. Thus, matchmaking individuals with roles in which they’ll thrive ensures a proper balance of generals to soldiers.

We Are Committed to Increasing Your Team’s Potential

In conclusion, every person has potential. When hiring and managing those people, success is determined by where you place those people and in which teams. Effective managers find out who their people “are” to achieve success for both the employees and the organization. People strive when successful; we at Trust Well Network help create that possibility, so talk to us!