Five Dos and Don’ts of Managing High Potential Employees


As the War for Talent rages, ensuring the success of high potential (HiPo) employee programs is more important than ever.

Many companies still struggle to successfully identify, assess, develop and shepherd the careers of their top talent to fill leadership gaps, and drive growth and innovation throughout the organization.

While every organization is different, here are three of the most common pitfalls in managing a HiPo program and advice on how to avoid them.

But, DON’T confuse high performance with high potential.

It’s more than past performance

All high potentials are high performers, but not all high performers are high potentials.

Excluding some high performers from the HiPo list isn’t an easy decision to make, but in the long run, culling your list to just high performing/high potentials will serve you well. In fact, research indicates that only about 20 percent of high performing managers are rightfully considered to have high potential for advancement.

Past performance is important – and you need to take it into account – but it’s not sufficient. Make sure you’ve thoughtfully considered the criteria you’ll use to identify HiPo talent.

1. DO utilize formal assessment methodologies

Solicit leadership input to create an initial list of candidates and then confirm with a multi-trait assessment of the individuals to assure accurate selection.

Gut feelings, observations and intuition are fine, as long as they’re matched by proven HiPo assessment methodologies that can measure for essential characteristics such as career drive, aspiration, agility, flexibility, and organizational confidence.

2. DON’T use outdated success profiles

Be sure to regularly revisit and update your HiPo success profile for validity and relevance. The required knowledge, experience, personal attributes and leadership capabilities required for HiPo program participation may change over time as the marketplace and organizational priorities evolve.

Don’t fall victim to identifying, assessing and developing your future leaders based on capabilities better suited for your company’s past or present, rather than for its future.

3. DO regularly & meticulously assess HiPo criteria

Few things are more important than leadership succession planning.

Define the critical traits for success in key roles over a three to five year horizon. Focus on four to seven essential requirements — the core criteria that, if possessed by a critical mass of leaders, will propel your organization toward success.

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Revisit your model every year to account for new challenges, and seek out external factors and research to inform your success profiles.

4. DON’T promote from outside your HiPo talent pool

Promoting from outside your HiPo talent pool will undermine the credibility and trust in your program.

When HiPos aren’t nurtured under a structured process providing meaningful assignments, consistent feedback, development and career opportunities, they may lose faith in the company and leave to pursue careers elsewhere.

You’ve invested considerable time, energy and money to identify and develop your future leaders – why squander it and risk your entire program by not remaining true to its intention?

5. DO create a credible, structured development program

Senior executives should be meaningfully engaged with the program so they can help insure HiPos are being developed with the right capabilities.

In addition to educational activities, HiPo initiatives need to include job-based exposure and stretch experiences so these future leaders are prepared to function in new positions as they become available.

Develop trust and confidence in your program by not allowing exceptions from the HiPo ranks when nominating individuals for new leadership positions.

The post originally appeared in a somewhat different form on

Named as one of the Ten Best and Brightest Women in the incentive industry and to the Employee Engagement Power 100 list, a Change Maker, Top Idea Maven, and President’s Award winner, Michelle is a highly accomplished international speaker, author, and strategist on performance improvement. A respected authority on leadership, workplace culture, talent and employee engagement, she’s a trusted advisor to many of the world’s most successful organizations and the governments of the United Kingdom and the United States.

Michelle speaks and writes about what she knows first-hand – as a former executive of a Fortune 100 global conglomerate, and as a researcher and strategist. She passionately shares new insights and tools for leaders to confidently, effectively and strategically lead their organizations to success.

Michelle is the Past President of the FORUM for People Performance at Northwestern University and President Emeritus of the Incentive Marketing Association. Michelle was the Founder and Chair of the Editorial Board of Return on Performance Magazine, and has been featured on Fox Television, the BBC, in Fortune, Business Week, Inc. and other global publications, and contributed to the books Bull Market by Seth Godin, Contented Cows Still Give Better Milk, and Social Media Isn’t Social.   




6 Comments on “Five Dos and Don’ts of Managing High Potential Employees

  1. There is so much truth in this article. It takes only one manager to go outside of these guidelines to bring discredit to the practice. On the other hand, it can pay great dividends. Pay programs play an important part as well. I believe there should be separate pay programs for HiPo’s and HiPerf’s. They need to be well thought out and meet the needs of the individuals and the organization. You can’t run a company with only high potentials. They do need to deliver and show the ability to perform.

  2. Excellent article. All corporations are COMPLEX SYTEMS THAT FAIL FOR THE SAME REASONS– Human Agenda, Complication & a lack of BROAD, DIVERSE INTELLECT! Too many WHITE MALE EXECUTIVES & HR GROUPS ‘HIRE THEMSELVES’ — people of the SAME RACE, WITH THE SAME MYOPIA & FAILINGS. They doom themselves then blame their employees! Indeed, their IGNORANCE, Racism, Sexism & AGE-ISM kill their corporations and WASTE ASSETS they must husband. But the corporations die BLISSFULLY…

  3. Hiring and promoting selfish, loud tall people because they’re popular doesn’t work… trust me.

  4. Some good points, however too many do’s and don’ts in this article. A company or entrepreneur either genuinely cares about their employees or they don’t. There is no in between.

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