6 Traits to Better Identify High Potentials (HiPo’s)

A pawn casts a shadow of a chessboard king

We define high potential employees as the most talented 5-10% of an organization. From our perspective, HiPo’s:

• Perform. Regularly outperform their job expectations and their peers regardless of the situation.
• Behave. Consistently model the organizational culture and core values.
• Strive. Clearly show the willingness and capability to quickly learn and grow within an organization.

Someone could make a fortune if there were an invention that could clearly discern potential—whether or not a “pawn” employee has what it takes to become a king.

One of the problems in identifying high potential employees is that too many of us measure future potential by current and past performance. This is a mistake. An employee who excels in one job may not have the ability or the desire to excel in another. How many top engineers have you seen promoted into management who fail miserably in their new role? And it was most likely not their fault. They probably had no preparation for becoming a new manager. They had the analytical and problem solving skills that served them well in their previous position but not the leadership, decision making, or communication skills they needed to successfully lead a team.

Conversely, failing to identify, develop and promote HiPo’s can lead to increased attrition and succession planning problems. Our annual employee engagement research found that almost one-third of high-potential employees are looking for new jobs. Can your company afford that?

So if you can’t predict success from an employee’s current or past track record, what guidelines are there to help you select those high-potentials worthy of grooming for leadership positions? As a bare minimum, the employee should want the leadership position and be willing to do whatever it takes to earn and secure it. You also want to be sure of the employee’s commitment to the organization. They should be highly engaged in the company’s mission and totally committed to and representative of the company’s core values.

Once you have a preliminary list of likely HiPo candidates, you need to measure them against a proven leadership profile of the critical few competencies you and your team have determined are essential for future success at your company based upon your unique business strategy and corporate culture.

While each company and organizational culture is different, here are six of the most common traits our high performance clients consider when they are looking to develop a group of high potentials. These are clients who understand the importance of planning for the future. The best leaders know that it is in the best interests of the company to select and prepare their successors.

Look for candidates who are:

1. Proactive
High performing leaders are not content to just wait and watch others. They understand the bigger strategic picture and thrive on taking smart, meaningful and aligned actions to succeed. They often take charge to make positive things happen with those around them and are seen as a “go to” resource to help move things forward in a way that makes sense.

2. Good decision makers
High performing leaders need to be able to view all the pros and cons of an issue and still reach a decision they and their teams can stick to. HiPo’s are able to do this quickly, decisively, and with minimal information while balancing vested interests and emotional attachments.

3. Trusted and trustworthy
High performing leaders consistently inspire trust from their peers and followers because of their high integrity, consistent willingness to listen to opposing views without repercussions, and perceived fairness in dealing with others.

4. Excellent communicators
High performing leaders know how to clearly articulate an idea, vision or plan that inspires others. They are persuasive and often charismatic. But in addition to advocating a compelling point of view, they also know how to truly listen…both to receive feedback and to understand another’s point of view.

5. Flexible
High performing leaders skillfully adapt with equanimity to changing circumstances. They thrive at understanding how each of their team members works best and adapt their leadership style accordingly. Flexible leaders consistently tap into each person’s true potential and raise the performance bar for their team by playing to people’s strengths.

6. Goal- and future-oriented
High performing leaders know how to plan for the future and keep focused on what matters most. They do not fall prey to the “fad of the month.” They do not shift priorities or lower expectations when challenges arise. And they do not play politics or favorites. Quite the contrary. High performing leaders clearly set where the team needs to head, hold their team accountable and ensure that information flow across their team is timely.

There may well be other characteristics that you want to include in your specific high performance leader profile that is designed for your unique strategy and organizational culture. Remember not to look just at current performance but at the whole person who exhibits leadership qualities but perhaps has not yet had the time or the experience to fully develop them.

That’s what “potential” is all about.

Learn more about attracting, developing, engaging and retaining differentiated talent.

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