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How Do You Identify High Potential Employees?

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The Institute for Corporate Productivity (is there an institute for everything?) recently conducted a study on high potential employees and the practices of organizations around them.

If you want to be groomed for a leadership position, then it pays to be viewed as a “high-potential” employee, or “HiPo,” for short, according to a recent study conducted by the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp). The study found that 69% of the 469 responding organizations have a high-potential assessment process in place, and most of those organizations (70%) say that a development plan is part of that process.

“Employees who want new development opportunities would do well to try to convince their organizations that they’re packed with potential,” says i4cp Senior VP of Research Jay Jamrog. “That’s where companies focus a lot of their attention and resources.”

The survey also found, however, that organizations are much less diligent about measuring the effectiveness of their HiPo assessment programs. A little fewer than half (47%) of those with such programs said they track the effectiveness of their assessment process.

I’m frankly not surprised by the finding that 70% of organizations have a way to assess their high potential employees.  I’m also certain that the vast majority of this is an e-mail that goes out to managers telling them to identify the HiPo’s so they can be placed in a development program, which may be a set of lunches over the year.  Obviously, my opinion is pretty negative here.  Real employee development plans are as few and far between as real performance review programs.  They are put in place for the sake of appearances, and not measured or invested in.

The identification if HiPo’s is not just gathering the best performance scores in the organization and collecting those people together.  Often, quantitative performance metrics are not enough because subjective factors such as the ability to network, the art of persuasion, engagement, innovating thinking and leadership capacity should also be part of the mix.  You just don’t get all of these from a performance review.

My opinion also includes a guess as to how most employee development happens.  In the same way, a manager identifies a HiPo employee, but rather than HR providing a structure around how to formulate a development plan, the manager becomes a mentor.  Once you have found out what all the components of a HiPo is, and you’ve identified your candidates, you need to realize that the mentorship relationship is one of the strongest vehicles you have.  Developing not only a mentorship network, but also coaching mentors has got to be part of the HiPo program.  This is of course hit and miss because some managers have no desire to groom their replacement, and other managers have no business trying to be mentors.  However, my point is that on the few occasions that employee development works, its’ not because of the development program, but instead because of the informal mentoring relationships, and the key is to figure out how to formalize them.

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5 responses to “How Do You Identify High Potential Employees?”

  1. How Do You Identify High Potential Employees?

  2. make them very effective in the future. These high potential candidates are also the people who are often groomed to be future leaders within the organization. This kind of hiring is slowly taking place in different organizations as shown in thissurvey.

  3. Amy Wilson Avatar

    Dubs – I am currently reading Mindset by Carol Dweck. There is a lot that we can leverage from Dweck’s work in defining best practices around potential identification and development. Like you said, it’s not just about performance ratings. But, it is also not just about ability. Rather, Dweck would argue it is a growth mindset that will allow an individual to fulfill their potential. In other words, organizations need to strongly consider the willingness and desire of people to learn new things and take on new challenges, not just those who want a label of “hipo.”

    Have others read this book and found it useful in this context?

  4. Wally Bock Avatar

    Excellent post. My favorite bit is: ” Once you have found out what all the components of a HiPo is, and you’ve identified your candidates, you need to realize that the mentorship relationship is one of the strongest vehicles you have.”

    My observation is that HiPo leadership development programs often have two big weaknesses. First, they almost always create a “star class” that sucks resources and attention from other leaders in the organization. Second, the identification of HiPo (in my day it was called “fast track”) makes a person more likely to be courted by headhunters.

    Part of the problem is that trying to guess who is HiPo and therefore likely to deliver above average results and choose to keep climbing the ole promotion ladder is very hard to get right. In better leadership development programs everybody gets reviewed. As people develop, they either produce above average results or not. If they do they become the leaders from whom the top rank of company leaders is chosen.

  5. Lilit kirakosyan Avatar

    Nice and useful reading, thank you very much