How to identify high potential employees

4 May 2020
9 minute

Think about the members of your current team and you can probably easily identify several individuals who stand out from the crowd. This could be for many different reasons - perhaps they are highly efficient in terms of work output, or maybe they have an aptitude for training and developing new recruits. Often, these are the first people you think of when it comes to putting staff forward for promotions, bonuses or other incentives.


How to identify high potential employees

But while these shining stars might have plenty of good points, can they truly be described as high potential employees?

The definition of a high potential employee (sometimes referred to as HiPo’s) is likely to vary between organisations, however, they can generally be described as being:

  • Talented in their job role
  • Keen to pursue leadership opportunities
  • On board with company culture
  • Empathetic and emotionally intelligent
  • Calm under pressure
  • Collaborative workers who perform well in groups
  • Able to use their initiative and work autonomously
  • Trusted and respected by their colleagues
  • Open about their personal career goals
  • Happy to receive feedback and adjust their performance accordingly
  • Willing to take on responsibilities outside of their job description
  • Motivated to develop new skills
  • Interested in the future success of the company

With the increasing competition and costs associated with recruiting top performers, as well as their potential impact on business performance, it is becoming more important for businesses to identify high potential employees in their own teams.

How to identify high potential employees

Many organisations lack a standardised or analytical method for identifying high potential. Instead, they rely solely on the instincts of management staff or ad-hoc observations as part of the performance management or appraisal process. However, there are tools and approaches which can help to identify high potential employees.

The High Potential Trait Indicator (HPTI) was developed by Ian McRae and Adrian Furnham in 2006. It was designed using an ‘optimality’ model, which assumes that certain personality traits can be considered ‘optimal’ according to the requirements of a job role.

The HPTI is designed to measure Conscientiousness, Adjustment, Curiosity, Risk Approach, Ambiguity, Acceptance and Competitiveness. Responses to the assessment are reflected for each of these traits - too much or not enough of a particular trait will have advantages as well as disadvantages to the assessment results. Some trait levels are viewed as indicating a high potential for success, whereas others highlight characteristics which could affect the success of an otherwise high potential employee.

High potential vs high performance

A common misconception is that high performance is the same as high potential, however, this is not necessarily the case. Just because someone is performing well in their current job role, that doesn’t mean they are the most suitable candidate for promotion.

For example, a high performing nurse who receives regular praise for their patient care and bedside manner won’t necessarily have the relevant skills to lead the team as a ward manager. Equally, a high performing sales agent who hits their target every month isn’t guaranteed to have the people skills required to train and develop others to achieve the same levels of success.

According to Ready, Conger & Hill, the attributes needed for leadership roles can be spotted in only 3-5% of high performing employees. So just how do you measure potential? How do you identify potential leaders? Remember, while a high potential employee will probably look different from business to business, there are a few key traits to watch out for.

Personality traits of high potential employees

  1. Conscientiousness - HiPo’s are self-motivated and driven to achieve. They are effective strategic planners, demonstrating high conscientiousness through strong planning, objective-directed behaviour and discipline.
  2. Adjustment - HiPo’s will demonstrate high tolerance and resilience in stressful situations, as well as the ability to adapt quickly without difficulty.
  3. Curiosity - HiPo’s are adaptable to change and willing to consider new and creative ideas or working methods if there is a chance they could add value to the business.
  4. Risk approach - HiPo’s aren’t afraid to challenge, confront and solve difficult situations. They are proactive when it comes to solving problems.
  5. Ambiguity acceptance - HiPo’s thrive in complex working environments, always seeking out further information. They are willing to listen to unpopular or differing opinions.
  6. Competitiveness - HiPo’s display ‘useful competitiveness’ which is focussed on the success of the organisation, competitive advantage of teams, departments and the business overall.

Once you have identified these HiPo traits in employees working in your organisation, they should be nurtured and measured as part of your high potential leadership development program.

How do you measure high potential?

The first step is to establish what you want your employees to have high potential for. Being a high potential employee is not always about being somebody who will quickly be able to climb the career ladder through promotions. After all, just because they are suitable for promotion, it doesn’t necessarily mean they will make a significant contribution to the overall success of the business.

One of the best ways to assess employees for high potential is through the use of personality profiling assessments. These are used by employers to help identify individuals with the character traits needed for a particular job role and determine whether they are likely to excel within that role.

Before using personality assessment tools, it is important to establish the benchmark for high potential within your organisation. As a guide, you will probably be looking for people who:

  • Will perform well in a senior management role
  • Has the ability to improve performance within their business sector
  • Has the drive and determination to move to the top of the career ladder within your company

It is equally important to communicate this benchmark to staff and management teams. Ensure you have a structured criteria for promotion that is available to all. This should set out exactly which key performance indicators, achievements and behaviours are likely to make somebody suitable for promotion.

Utilise reliable and objective methods to track performance - consider introducing a 360-degree appraisal system to ensure you are not basing employee performance on the subjective opinion of one line manager. When it comes to output, be transparent about team performance and offer training, support and encouragement to those who don’t meet their goals or objectives. Try not to base your opinions solely on past or present performance as high potential employees will have the ability to improve this in the future, given the right support.

Tools for identifying high potential employees

Thomas’ High Potential Trait Indicator (HPTI) offers managers the opportunity to gain a comprehensive insight into staff personality traits and helps make an assessment on whether they are suited to a particular job role.

The HPTI is an assessment grounded in the ‘Big 5’ model. It is designed to assess the traits that predict job success and the risk of derailment.

By using the HPTI, you will be able to:

  • Retain your future stars by enabling them to progress and develop into more senior roles
  • Improve and inform your succession planning process
  • Improve teamwork amongst your business leaders
  • Improve employee engagement through stronger leadership
  • Create and support leadership development plans
  • Add certainty to graduate recruitment

The HPTI is simple yet comprehensive. Through its use, you will benefit from a detailed report into an individual’s potential. It reduces the risk of any bias in the assessment, ensuring every staff member is assessed in the same way, plus you will be able to use the results to track progress over time.

The results of the HPTI can be used to help managers to understand how certain personalities interact with particular job functions or roles. This newly-acquired knowledge can then be used to develop strengths and identify any areas for improvement.

There are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ scores for the HPTI - the key point is that each set of scores indicates a preferred leadership style. Scoring outside of the optimum band does not mean a person cannot lead, but it can help managers to identify the best ways to support and develop individuals in order that they can achieve their full potential.

How do you develop high potential employees?

Once you have identified high potential employees, it is vital that you support and develop them to ensure they remain committed to your company. While each HiPo is different, a similar approach is required to develop them.

  • Review the results from their HPTI assessment and establish their strengths and weaknesses.
     
  • Nurture their strengths. These are the traits which will aid them to make a positive contribution to the company. Consider enrolling them onto enriching training courses or enlisting the help of a more experienced mentor within the team.
     
  • Offer feedback for any areas where they show weakness - a high potential employee will be willing to accept and learn from any issues that you identify. Consider whether there is a training or development need and make the appropriate arrangements if required.
     
  • Draw up a personalised plan for their future development. This will help them to visualise where they are currently and exactly what steps they need to take to achieve their overall objectives.
     
  • View high potential staff as an investment. This means you will need to support them with the resources that they need to reach their potential.

The benefits of developing high potential employees

As future leaders, HiPo’s are crucial to the success of any organisation. Developing your high potential employees is the best way to ensure they continue to feel motivated, engaged and committed to your company. In the words of Richard Branson, “Train people well enough so they can leave, treat them well enough so they don’t want to”.

Investing resources in the development of high potential staff means you will have a talent pool available to ensure quick recruitment to leadership vacancies. And don’t underestimate the link between employee engagement and business results - research by Gallup indicates a strong link between the two. In fact, organisations with the highest levels of employee engagement enjoy 22% higher levels of profitability than companies in the lower quartiles for engagement.

Summary

Just because somebody is performing well today in their current job role, it doesn’t necessarily mean they will be successful in a more senior position. Having a system in place to accurately identify high performing staff is key. If you’re looking for ways to improve the management and development of HiPo’s within your organisation, why not request a demo of the Thomas HPTI?

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