How to identify and nurture high potential employees

Written by Vicki Marlan, Organisational Development Consultant

Imagine that you are a manager of a star employee. You are excited to have your annual review with her this year because you will be delivering a raving review and a sizable merit increase. As you are concluding the conversation with what you thought would be an attractive offer for your employee to move into a supervisory role, she surprises you with her answer: “No, thank you.”

Your employee elaborates that she is happy to stay in her current role for the foreseeable future. She likes being an individual contributor and is thriving in her area of expertise with no desire to manage other employees. She likes being what you later learn is called a ‘high professional.’ The problem is you thought of her as a ‘high potential’ employee (HiPo) — someone who has the ability, commitment, and desire to rise and succeed in higher level positions.

You hear the record scratch sound in your head, and your mind starts to race. Where did you miss the signs or cues? You quickly reflect back over your weekly 1:1s and realise that although you talked about how well things have been going, you never addressed the future and her (lack of) desire for a management role. And you now have a role to fill with no one in the wings waiting to take it. Now what?

How to recognise high potential employees

High potentials are woven directly into succession planning processes. But a part of succession planning best practices that is often overlooked is asking the employee if they want to be considered a HiPo. Both high potentials and high professionals are important to have in an organisation. However, they are different, and need to be supported differently in their careers.

More importantly, managers need to know how to recognise, hire, and retain HiPos to support succession planning. Read on to learn about what this manager could have done differently to ensure that their team member was set up for future success — regardless of her preferred career path — and how they could have avoided having an empty talent pipeline.

What is a high professional?

Just because an employee doesn’t want to move into a management role doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be developed. High professionals (HiPros) prefer to stay high performing in their role long term, but still value learning, developing, and growing. Retaining people who are great at their jobs is important for business continuity. They hold institutional knowledge, provide consistent results, and can train newcomers.

However, HiPros are not the focus for succession planning purposes, so knowing whether someone is a HiPo or HiPro is critical. Before organisations invest time and money into developing HiPros for leadership roles in which they have no interest, a conversation between employees and their managers should take place to check for interest and capability.

Managers shouldn’t wait until yearly performance management conversations to ask employees about their career path goals. In fact, it doesn’t need to be a formal discussion but can be casual in nature if that makes the employee more comfortable. However, managers should enquire about an employee’s career aspirations after they have been in their role for 30 days – the earlier, the better. The conversation can include questions as simple as, “Where do you see yourself in three years?” or “Are there any other roles at the company you are interested in moving into eventually?”

If the answer to those questions is “at our company in a leadership role,” — and they are a motivated, high performing employee — the manager can begin thinking about that person as a HiPo and develop a management plan accordingly. The sooner a manager knows whether an employee prefers to be an individual contributor or wants to be CEO someday, the better.

How to retain HiPos

Succession planning starts in your own backyard. If a manager happens to have high performing, high potential employees on their team, they are in luck, because HiPos are the key to an organisation’s succession plan. But how do they ensure that these talented individuals are happy in their roles and can be developed to rise in the ranks of the company?

Employee work expectations are shifting as a result of the quick-changing nature of the workplace. Although the organisation’s needs for filling roles for succession are important, paying attention to preferences of younger workers who will eventually fill the leadership ranks is also important.

General changes in workforce preference trends skew toward meaningful experiences and work-life balance. According to recent surveys done by Deloitte and Great Place to Work all employees, but particularly ones who are newer to the workforce, value work with purpose — that is having an employer whose values match their own.

However, managers shouldn’t rely on generalisations about groups of employees to tailor their workflows. During check-in conversations that managers are already having, they can discuss the employee’s priorities with regard to work-life balance, culture, and work styles to ensure that there is a long-term alignment. The manager may not be able to control whether the organisation is mission-driven, but they may have more control over the type of assignments that are delegated to an employee they want to retain. In a global organisation, providing HiPos with the opportunity to travel to another office for a site visit or even a secondment are examples of valuable experiences that bring value to the employee and could increase the likelihood of long-term retention.

Evolving succession planning best practices

Although the younger generations tend not to stay with the same company for their whole career and have been reported to contribute to the ‘great resignation’ trend, it doesn’t mean that all hope is lost for organisations to build out their talent pipelines. To set their organisation up for success, leaders may need to step back to before the hiring process even begins and take a closer look to ensure that they are hiring for the future, not just the next one to three years. Perhaps there will be a need to create more than one career path for the same role.

To get the organisation’s succession planning and career pathing program in better shape, employees’ career aspirations need to be taken into account. Start by concentrating on current high performers and mission critical roles, and identifying how to replicate their knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs). Focus groups and surveys can be conducted to cover the following questions:

  • What KSAs does a person need right now?
  • What about three to five years down the line?
  • What are the needs and wants of employees?
  • What are the mission critical roles?
  • What are the development needs of those in the mission critical roles?
  • What are the organisation’s needs for today AND in the future?

Once the questions outlined above have been answered, the organisation will be in a better place to hire externally for mission-critical roles, and more importantly, developing high potential employees internally.

Employees should also be surveyed formally and frequently through a short ‘pulse survey’ that is designed to provide senior leaders with a pulse check on whether certain aspects of organisational culture resonate with employees or if anything is dissuading them from staying with the organisation long-term. The pulse survey can reveal cultural preferences and trends that aren’t collected in the focus groups and surveys.

How to develop HiPos

After identifying the development needs of the mission-critical roles, leaders will need to ensure that sufficient time and resources are spent on upskilling or hiring to fill gaps. If organisations want to avoid turnover, they need to provide more training and development as well as promotion opportunities within the organisation. Pew Research Center data from March 2023 found that only 44% of U.S. workers surveyed were extremely or very satisfied with those opportunities internally.

Organisations should empower managers to collect input from employees, particularly HiPos, to find out what is important to them in order to tailor their development accordingly. Starting when the employee is hired and revisiting as frequently as necessary, managers should continue to check in on career goals and values to set their direct report up for success. Some questions to consider:

  • What are the employee’s career goals?
  • Are their goals in alignment with the organisation’s?
  • Does the employee display the behaviours aligned with the competencies identified as needed for success in the next role in their career path? If not, what development do they need to get there?
  • Are they aware of their current strengths and development areas?

Based on the information collected, managers can direct employees to a variety of options, ranging from coaching to formal leadership development programs. Talogy’s research has found that emotional intelligence and resilience are qualities that are consistently needed for leaders to be successful, and the good news is that they can both be developed.

Organisations can assess HiPos in a number of ways to help them build self-awareness around any areas that might have previously been a blind spot. Providing HiPos with the tools they need to succeed will set the organisation up for success and arm them with a pipeline of engaged and motivated future leaders.

Identifying and selecting high potentials

We are facing a talent war.

Great leaders are hard to find and even harder to retain in a competitive global economy.

Now more than ever, identifying, developing, and engaging high potentials is an important part of every successful organisation’s talent strategy. They know that their culture is driven by their leaders and they also know that high performing leaders can be associated with all sorts of positive outcomes (e.g., increased retention of staff, higher employee engagement scores).

Download our whitepaper to find out:

  • What are indicators of potential?
  • How to identify and assess for potential
Download Now
high potentials a roadmap for identifying and selecting high potentials cta whitepaper cover