How to Spot a High-Potential Employee & Help Them Grow

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A high-potential employee is an individual who not only excels in their current job, but also has a great deal of potential to advance into higher-level opportunities. In order to retain high-potential employees and prepare them to grow into future roles with your company, it's important to identify them, keep them engaged, and help them prepare to achieve their potential. Find out how.

What Is a High-Potential Employee?

The definition of a high-potential employee goes beyond simply being good at one's job. Some people who are good at their jobs are in the perfect type of position and level within the organization for them. They're valuable assets to the organization, but that doesn't mean they would be identified as high-potential, which is sometimes referred to as HiPo. Those who are HiPo are doing a terrific job now, but also have the potential and drive to do so much more. Not only are they highly skilled, but they also have the traits and characteristics needed to succeed as a leader, along with a desire to do so.

Traits of High-Potential Employees

High-potential employees are not all alike, of course, but they do tend to have a number of traits and characteristics in common. It's important for managers to observe and provide feedback to all of their employees. When an employee's behavior includes a combination of the following traits, chances are, the person is a high-potential individual.

  • Highly competent - consistently performs at a high level, including both quantity and quality of work; seeks to excel with every aspect of the tasks involved in their work
  • Strategic thinker - seeks new ways to make progress toward achieving goals; able to identify and streamline or eliminate tasks and activities that are not strategically aligned with goals
  • Team player - contributes positively to the team cohesiveness and productivity by being a great team member; puts team interests above their own
  • Highly engaged - enthusiastically approaches work duties and takes pride in their work and in the organization as a whole; committed to doing great work
  • Informal leaders - tend to be the ones that other team members look up to and go to for help or advice when the boss isn't available, or they'd rather speak with a peer
  • Takes initiative - appropriately identifies what needs to be done and proactively acts to complete those tasks, rather than waiting to be told to do so
  • Handles pressure well - able to continue to do great work even under pressure; even thrives in situations where the stakes are high or deadlines or tight
  • Accountable - proactively accepts accountability for their actions and words; appropriately accepts personal responsibility rather than seeking to shift blame to others
  • Improvement focused - actively seeks feedback to help them learn how to become even better at their jobs; open to and quick to act on constructive feedback
  • Development minded - regularly seeks opportunities to acquire new skills or strengthen existing ones; enthusiastically participates in training opportunities
  • Seeks responsibility - asks for opportunities to work on new projects or take on new challenges; volunteers to serve on cross-departmental committees
  • Helpful to peers - proactively offers assistance to team members who may be struggling or overloaded with work; helps to train those seeking to master new tasks
  • Welcoming - proactively welcomes new team members to help them feel comfortable; takes steps to ensure that newbies are included in informal interactions
  • Ethical - exhibits high levels of personal integrity and ethics; consistently makes decisions and behaves in a way that's consistent with the organization's values
  • Ambitious - wants to advance to higher levels within the organization; interested in taking on a role that includes leadership responsibilities

How to Help HiPo Employees Grow

In the course of managing and motivating their employees, strong managers will be able to recognize which team members exhibit HiPo traits and characteristics. Managers should periodically discuss career goals and interests with employees as part of the performance management process. When a high-potential employee is interested in preparing to advance, the manager and employee should agree on a development path. Employee development plans for HiPos typically include things like:

  • Mentoring - working individually with a member of the leadership or executive team
  • Management training - attending classes focused on developing supervisory and leadership skills
  • Executive shadowing - sitting in on executive or leadership team meetings
  • Leading internal teams - heading up project teams or short-term committees
  • Cross-training - spending time learning how to perform tasks and job functions in different departments
  • Pursuing higher education - enrolling in a degree program relevant to the industry, or acquisition of leadership skills

Importance of Developing High-Potentials

When a manager identifies and helps develop high-potential employees, that supervisor is contributing positively to the organization and to the needs of a top-performing team member. Developing HiPos is an important part of an organization's succession plan, as that's how the company proactively ensures that there are internal candidates who are ready to step into leadership roles that may become available. It's also an important key to retaining and engaging top performers who might otherwise become disengaged and/or opt to leave if they do not see a path to leadership within the organization.

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How to Spot a High-Potential Employee & Help Them Grow