Insights by pcl.
6 min readAug 1, 2019


“If finding or identifying high potentials is one of the most difficult aspects of talent management (and we would argue it is), actually moving them is the other, particularly in a proactive and planful manner.”
- Church & Waclawski

Human potential has been the focus of study and research by psychologists for over a century; in recent times the concept of the “high-potential employee” or ‘HiPo’ has become a critical theme among HR leaders and practitioners. While definitions of employee potential vary, the focus is on the probability of significant future contributions to an organisations success.

The key factors determining high potential may be different for every company, however a generally accepted definition would be an employee who has been identified as having the potential, ability and aspiration for successive leadership positions within an organisation1. Research reveal that organisations with formal High Potential are 7 times more effective at delivering improved business results and generating nearly 60 per cent improved business growth. Other verifiable benefits accrued to organisations with formal High Potential (HI-Po) Programmes include:

· Key leader retention — When an organisation has an advanced high-potential development strategy, it is three times better at improving its ability to retain key positions, as compared to organisations with less mature strategies.

· Bench strength — A high-potential talent development strategy can help build an organisation’s bench strength — which represents the strength and readiness of potential successors to move into key positions critical to an organisation’s business performance.

· Global business management — Organisations with more advanced strategies demonstrated they are nearly twice as likely to be able to address global business needs.

· Three-fold performance outcomes from High Potentials above their peers

Some organisations with formal Hi-Po programmes include FBN Quest, Flour Mills of Nigeria, Procter & Gamble, Unilever plc. etc. Despite the critical benefit levers that High Potential Programmes can offer most firms; there appears to be a discrepancy between the potential of these interventions and the actual results enjoyed by their practitioners. A high potentialprogram study4 discovered that despite increased investments in high potential programs, most human resources professionals reported they are either dissatisfied or highly displeased with their curricula.

Considering the fierce competition for talent and the need to grow a strong bench of successors, high potential programs will remain a vital strategy in employee development. What firms need to do is understand how they can improve the success of these programs to gain the full return of investments.

The aim of this article is to provide advisory to several key issues which need to be resolved to raise the stakes of success on HiPo programmes.

First is the inaccurate identification of the High Potential Employee

Leaders in firms often make a costly mistake of employing subjective methods in identifying High Potential Employees. A good example of a culture fit or high-performance as an individual contributor are not stand-alone criteria for identifying a HiPo. The remedy for subjectivity in the identification process are scientific, objective, psychometric driven assessments which combines data sets from performance management, professional development and other staff indices.

pcl. is building a niche for its data-driven psychometric assessments and frameworks for Hi Potential identification. In a recent HiPo intervention for a leading investment firm, a HiPo competence framework was designed to capture both globally accepted, and internally desired skills sets such as learning agility and emotional intelligence.

In addition, our scientifically validated and internationally recognized High Potential Trait Indicator (HPTi) was deployed to evaluate key potential competencies such as Conscientiousness, Adjustment, Curiosity, Risk Approach, Ambiguity Acceptance and Competitiveness. Our model allowed for the integration of historical performance records and assessment outcomes to provide objective potential indices of each member of the target population. Naturally these interventions will require the determination of readiness timeframes and a development plan for those accepted into the HiPo pool or program.

Another critical success factor for HiPo programmes is improving line management and supervisory capability. Most managers fail to help fast rising high potentials realize their ability. In most instances, they rarely have time to clearly explain performance prospects, define goals, and developmental needs or provide periodic feedback on how the individual’s performance and behaviour align with expectations.

When it comes to high-potential employees, the major priority of the manager is to challenge them, provide stretch opportunities, and next-level exposure. This differs from a more moderate potential employee, where the goals might be to provide motivation, variety in their projects, and recognition, so they know they are valued.

Ron Ashkenas5 explains that managers struggle with their role in HiPo’s supervision because they generally dislike employee differentiating and would prefer treating all team members the same; secondly is the discomfort with continual, complex development dialogues. According to Ron, most managers avoid coaching discussions, particularly with employees who have more potential in their careers than they do.

Line managers play an essential role for the development of Hipo’s and all staff, hence the need for programme coordinators and HR leadership to provide support systems to help managers deal with the need to differentiate and to facilitate structured coaching sessions. Nevertheless, Hipo’s are meant to be critical long-term assets and should not be left exclusively to line management. Instead they should have a dedicated program team with full sponsorship and involvement from Senior Management.

With significant investments on HiPo’s, it is only natural to expect that organisations want to retain them in the company. Therefore, another critical factor is the effectiveness of retention strategies for these valued employees.

According to Corporate Executive Board6, the turnover rate of high-potential employees is 30%, and more than 50% of organisations are ineffective at retaining top talent. Their research7 also reveals that one in three emerging stars reported feeling disengaged from their company and as much as 12% of all the high potentials in the companies studied said they were actively searching for a new job.

A key reason for low retention success with HiPo’s is unrealized expectations. Organisations need to invest in understanding the critical engagement and reward drivers for all their staff, especially for their HiPo’s. HR leadership often determine retention priorities by consulting modern practices that are not customized to the socio-economic realities nor the voices of the firm’s internal customers.

HiPo’s are expected to have strong emotional intelligence quotients; whether informed formally or not, this staff population know their worth and are aware of the market possibilities for their potential. Any lip service in their organisations identifying and meeting their basic expectations would be met with significant turnover rates especially in economies experiencing renewal.

Reflective observations from organisations who have HiPo programmes show that these top talents are motivated by:

· Clear Career Paths and Guidance

· High-Impact Project and Leadership Opportunities

· Access to varied Learning & Development Experiences

· Robust Performance Feedback & Coaching

· Solid Networking & Mentoring Opportunities

· Engagement and Exposure to Senior Executives

· Robust Compensation & Benefits Possibilities

Organisations need to be data-driven and should take the pains of mining into their business to know the right practice i.e. which is the ‘best practice that fits the firms unique and socio-economic realities’ in matters of retention.

Phillips Consulting is in the business of transforming possibilities. We are equipping our partners and clients to take advantage of High Potential interventions as a key People Transformation lever; enabling them to understand, deploy, manage and optimize this possibility in their unique organisational contexts.

Future articles in this series on the practice of HiPo management will shed more light on engagement and development requirements, how to handle staff, not on the HiPo list and reward arrangements.

We are open to receiving your questions on this subject matter and providing responses in future articles.


1- The Art and Science of Building a High-Potential Strategy®(PDI Ninth House collaborated with Bersin & Associates)

2- One Page Talent Management (Marc Effron, The Talent Strategy Group)

3- Study: IBM, General Mills Head List of Top Companies for Leaders (http://www.clomedia.com)

4- High Potential Study (The Corporate Executive Board Company)

5- The Paradox of High Potentials by Ron Ashkenas

6- To Identify, Develop & Retain Your High Potential Employees (HIPO), Tushar Bhatia

7- How to Keep Your Top Talent, Jean Martin & Conrad Schmidt



Insights by pcl.

Phillips Consulting Limited (pcl.) is a leading business and management consulting firm serving clients across Africa. www.phillipsconsulting.net/