How To Identify And Retain High-Potential Employees

Every manager can think of at least a handful of employees who stand out from the crowd, distinguishing themselves by their efficiency and value to the team. These stars are usually at the top of the list when it comes time for promotions and bonuses — but how can you be sure that you properly identify high-potential employees (HiPos)?

“You can’t just wait around for high-potential talent to uncover itself,” says Cay Wittenberg, a leadership and management consultant at Success Labs. “You have to identify those agile employees and put them in the field to demonstrate their abilities. The workforce is changing, so you have to be proactive with high-potential employees.”

It’s in the best interest of companies to support and develop the HiPos within their ranks to ensure they remain engaged. The first step in creating an effective HiPo program is to accurately identify your HiPos; unfortunately, this is where organizations tend to have the most trouble.

Understand Potential vs. Performance

That trouble often arises due to a misunderstanding of the term “HiPo.” Employers frequently confuse potential with performance, and these are far from being the same thing. As Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic writes in Forbes, “performance is what you do, and potential is what you could do.”

As individuals rise through the ranks into managerial roles, the skills and capabilities that ensure their success in a given role will change. Just because a developer writes efficient and bug-free code doesn’t mean she’ll be able to effectively oversee others in that same role. Judging an employee’s readiness for a managerial role based solely on their performance in their current position has the unfortunate result of removing employees from positions in which they perform well and placing them in leadership roles for which they are unqualified.

“You’re looking for the difference between an employee who just knows how to do the job versus an invested employee looking to stretch and grow as much as possible within the organization,” Wittenberg says. “These are employees that are not just satisfied with the company but are also engaged — taking action, finding and utilizing opportunities and taking risks that would increase their value to the organization.”

Wittenberg points to four key types of agility that HiPos share and that frequently serve as indicators of future leadership success:

  • People Agility is the ability to mesh and connect across an increasingly diverse workforce.
  • Results Agility is the capacity to perceive intended results in a holistic and high-capacity manner.
  • Learning and Mental Agility is mental flexibility and investment in organizational change.
  • Change Agility is a positive attitude and excitement when faced with change.

These different agilities demonstrate a HiPo candidate’s engagement and investment in their work, and their commitment to doing more than the bare minimum for their organization.

Support Your HiPos

Because high-potential employees ambitiously chase after new challenges, it’s critical to invest in them and provide support to help ensure you retain them. HiPos represent a company’s strongest leadership pipeline. An investment in their success is an investment in your company’s future.

“You have to give those HiPo employees a challenge and a chance to prove themselves,” Wittenberg says. “For example, try assigning them to cross-functional teams focusing on tactical or organizational issues. Find what the company values and put together a task force to have employees keep other employees accountable to it through innovative programs.”

Most of all, Wittenberg says, maintain communication. HiPo employees want to move forward in their careers. Keep in touch to offer feedback and give them opportunities for leadership.

Offer HiPos a Clear Career Path

Once you’ve identified your HiPo employees, it’s critical to keep them invested and engaged. They need to know that they have opportunities with you; without that they’re not likely to stick around.

“Young talent is looking for career paths, for some clear direction on how they can keep adding value to a company, rather than just coming in and punching the clock each day,” Wittenberg says. “With so many opportunities in 2019, employees are not waiting around — just like senior leaders shouldn’t be waiting around for HiPo candidates to come to them. These employees are looking to get that confirmation and validation that people want to invest in them.”

Wittenberg suggests active succession planning. When you have HiPo candidates, you want to give them the chance to make a difference at your organization. “You don’t want to just provide opportunities that are not really adding impact anywhere,” she says. “You want to provide opportunities that are going to keep adding value to the organization.” This gives your HiPos purpose and keeps your best players engaged — which ultimately moves your company forward.

Invest in the Next Generation of Leaders

Identifying and supporting HiPos has become even more critical with the increasing number of millennials in the workforce. Many of the qualities that distinguish HiPos can also be applied to millennials: They’re eager to take on greater responsibility, and they have a strong desire to work in an environment where they feel supported and encouraged.

“Younger generations want to be invested in meaningful work — they tend to look for experiences over monetary value,” Wittenberg notes.

Organizations can mine their younger talent for HiPo candidates that offer not only longevity, but also investment. If you can offer millennial — and younger — employees purposeful work and a chance to make a difference, then you’ve already taken a huge step towards retaining HiPo talent and investing in your company’s future.

HiPos represent the future of any company, and the ways in which employers support them will determine how bright that future can be. By identifying and cultivating employees with exceptional aspiration, uncommon ability and superior engagement, employers can ensure that the next generation of leaders is well equipped to boost performance, foster innovation and drive sustainable growth.

This article was originally published in 2017 and was updated in August 2019.