Characteristics of high potential employees

4 May 2020
7 minute

Characteristics of high potential employees

High potential employees are instrumental in succession planning and optimising business objectives to determine long-term success. As the next generation of leadership, identifying individuals who will bring talent, determination and ability is incredibly important. Development of high potential employees or HiPo’s as they are often referred, is fundamental to retain that talent to ensure your business can benefit from their ability.

Understanding how to recognise, nurture and retain high potential employees is incredibly important for the succession planning process within an organisation. Knowledge of the key attributes of high potential employees and understanding biases and opinions of people is important to ensure you are objectively identifying the leaders of tomorrow.

Let’s look at why HiPos are so sought after. Are you able to differentiate between high-potential and high-performance employees? Below we will examine how they can add value to your business and uncover the key characteristics of high potential employees to help you discover the future leaders of your organisation and harness their promise.

What is a HiPo?

High potential employees are one of the most valuable assets to your business. So much so that they are considered 91% more valuable than non-high potential employees. They are usually earmarked as staff who have several key qualities that render them highly beneficial contributors to the business and its future success.

Ability, engagement and aspiration are the primary markers for recognising employees with high potential, drawing on their skills and experience, attitude towards growth and drive for success and their emotional and rational commitment. With most companies reporting their top 3-5% of their staff have high potential, it’s important to identify those that are suitable and work on their development.

High potential employees often show the ability to grow faster and with more success than their peers throughout their careers. They often aspire to earn a senior role within the business and plan to get there as quickly as possible. They are key to succession planning for organisations to continue growth and success within a business. While high potential employees often possess more natural talent than those around them, they are usually aware of this and can move on if their intentions and talent are not recognised and nurtured within a company.

Importance of identifying high potential employees

The true value of high potential employees is highlighted when companies review how much of their output and results are managed by a small portion of their staff. It is often found that a vital few within the organisation contribute the greatest results and the gap between staff-driven results increases significantly as the roles become more complex.

The ability to identify high potential employees is mutually beneficial for both the organisation and the employee. Establishing the right employees can lead to growth for the business as well as the employee and their career. One of the most important reasons for identifying high potential employees is to find people who will be effective senior managers within the business.

Identifying the appropriate candidates will justify greater investment into their development and mould them to become effective future leaders. They not only have potential in the future though; high potential staff also greatly increase the productivity of a team’s performance by as much as 15%. Implementing HiPos correctly within a business throughout the various stages of their career can have a positive impact on other staff, overall business outcomes and long term growth towards leadership.

The difference between potential and performance

High potential and high performance can often be misidentified and this is because the two traits aren’t always mutually exclusive. However while high potential employees are usually high performers, the same isn’t always true of high-performance employees. This can be most easily seen when high performers are moved into management roles and aren’t effective in helping their teams to achieve high results that they have previously indicated in their own ability.

High performers will always stand out from their peers and are a cut above the rest, however high potential employees have even more to offer than great results. Those with high potential will not only be results-driven, they will also possess an aptitude for leadership qualities that highlight reasoning and rationality, adaptability and aspiration to reach their full potential.

Characteristics of high potential employees

Recognising the characteristics that are aligned to high potential employees is critical in identifying their ability to contribute to the future of the organisation and enables employers to put programs in place to nurture their skills. Uncovering the future leaders of any business is important to ensure sufficient succession planning is in place giving rise to increased growth and continued prosperity of the company. Most high potential employees share a wealth of characteristics that are instrumental in identifying their future potential within the business.


Relating to their performance and the potential for performing roles in a senior position, this relates to expertise as well as an innate ability. They show the capability to deliver results with consistency and are able to work autonomously.


High potential employees show the desire for growth, taking on additional responsibilities within senior management and accountability for decision making. They make their long term goals clear and do well with development programs instilled within their internal growth. They also share a drive to achieve great results not only as an individual but also as a team, encouraging and supporting growth. They want to see the organisation succeed and will support it to reach the business objectives. Nurturing their aspirations will result in a more engaged employee and reduce the risk of talent turnover.


One of the easier traits of high potential employees to detect is their behaviour. Generally showing a high capability to learn, cooperate with team members and other staff, and manage their behaviours. This can often be linked to the person’s intellect as well as emotional intelligence and can be a strong indicator of how they will handle other people’s emotions and behaviours as well as how they work under pressure that is associated with senior roles.

Social skills

Employees who are able to adapt to various personalities, take on responsibilities and changing circumstances both professionally and personally are more likely to have high potential. Common characteristics that fall within their social skills can relate to extroversion, warmth and social influence. A key feature of those in leadership roles is their ability to interact with people effectively.


When under pressure, high potential employees usually remain calm and can guide their teams through stressful situations. Circumstances often change and the ability to pivot with relative ease is a highly desirable trait of high potential employees. Performing well in high-pressure situations is an ideal indicator of an employee's adaptability.


A keen understanding of the value of leadership is imperative for high potential employees. This means they will respect and understand the importance of quality leadership and aspire to fulfil these roles appropriately. A marker of their own leadership skills can usually be seen early by leading smaller teams and displaying the use of strategic thinking. Success in these early stages of the employee’s career are good indicators in conjunction with other abovementioned skills they may have high potential.

In summary

The value which high potential employees add to a business can be exponential. The key to taking advantage of the opportunities they present is recognising the characteristics of HiPos early and nurturing their development. By mentoring and harnessing their powerhouse abilities, high potential employees can become successful leaders that drive the growth and success of an organisation.

The most important characteristics of high potential employees are:

  • Ability/high performance
  • Aspiration/drive to be successful
  • Social skills and relationships
  • Behaviour
  • Adaptability/response to changing circumstances
  • Leadership qualities

Using a method such as the Thomas High Potential Trait Indicator assessment to evaluate employee potential, employers and HR departments can establish the difference between high performance and high potential employees to develop a succession plan. With high potential employees attributed to providing as much as 90% of the output and results seen within a business, their value is highly desirable.

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