What does high potential mean to an average employee? | Thomas.co

When some people think of high potential, they think of high-flyers, great leaders and fantastic success stories. High potential is sometimes seen as the preserve of only a few percent of the population - the elite performers.

High potential is actually a term that can be applied to everyone. The characteristics of high potential employees can apply to a high potential leader, while someone else might be a high potential salesperson, mechanic, researcher, promoter or teacher. As we discuss in the latest edition of High Potential: How to Spot, Manage and Develop Talented People at Work (2018), potential is about this question: the potential to do what?

In our first book launch hosted by Thomas International, one of the first questions asked during the author Q&A was: "It’s all very well and good to talk about high potential leaders, but what does high potential mean to the ordinary employee?"

All workers are high-potential employees

So what does high-potential mean to an average employee? The answer is that high potential is extraordinarily relevant to every person in the workplace. High potential is not just a matter of finding top talent; it’s also a matter of using tools to identify high potential for every employee, every position in the company. Businesses do not just run on charismatic leaders and a small minority of performers - that is just one type of potential.

A good business has a development plan for high potential people and thinks about how to engage and retain those employees with high potential.

Good leaders know that high potential in some positions means having reliable, consistent people who perform well every day at work. Often the people who do their jobs well every day go unnoticed; the importance of their work is only noticed when something goes wrong. For example, a reliable administrative assistant, IT professional or aircraft mechanic can also be understood in the context of high potential.

Often the highly important potential to be a consistent and reliable worker in these positions is undervalued, but the company relies on their potential to do their best work just as much (or sometimes more) than their manager.

What is potential?

Potential describes the ranges from best to worst possible levels of performance in a specific job. It is the possible trajectory of what a person has the capacity to do in the future. It describes the link between past performance and future success.

Employee potential is partly a matter of individual differences and personality traits but is also dependent on things outside of a person’s control. The office environment, the abilities and style of colleagues, job resources and many other factors can affect a person’s potential. A person may be highly intelligent and motivated to learn but be refused training and development opportunities. 


Potential is not a guaranteed path, but really is a probability of reaching a certain level of performance. High potential does not look the same for everyone, but every employee does have the potential for their performance to improve or decline. It is variable and will be affected by internal factors like personality and external factors like circumstance and the interaction between internal and external factors. There are a range of possible trajectories. 

An uppermost limit of potential always exists, and finding the right job resources, development opportunities and training will bring that person closer to their own high potential. Following high potential employee development best practices can ensure that the uppermost limit is met and maintained. A lowermost level of potential also exists. A potential 'floor' where even the most intelligent and conscientious employees can end up if their talents, their potential ability is ignored and it can be the reason why high potential employees leave. 

5 key points on employee potential

1.  Potential reflects cultural and organisational values

High potential will exist between teams, departments and organisations. Is the most valuable employee the most competitive or the most collaborative? That is a value judgement. 

2.  High potential eventually leads to specific outcomes

Whilst high potential can be different for different people, ultimately it can be defined. High potential is a likelihood of achieving a certain level of performance. 

3.  Potential is specific to certain jobs and domains

Defining potential means defining the job, and the performance criteria. Just because someone is a high performing entertainer does not necessarily mean they are a high potential scientist. 

4.  Multiple factors influence potential including biology, psychology, social and cultural groups

There is no single measure of potential, but different factors like personality and intelligence are pieces of the potential puzzle. 

5. Potential is relative

High potential exists only relative to moderate and low potential and validity. Baseline levels of performance and potential are different person-to-person and the highest and lowest potential is, by its very nature, rare. 

Identify leadership potential with the Thomas HPTI

The Thomas Workplace Personality assessment (HPTI) helps identify leadership potential by exploring a person’s personality traits and provides an insight into how suited they may be for a given job role or position.

You can find out more about the characteristics of high potential employees and how to identify them by visiting the Resources section of our website.

Ian MacRae & Adrian Furnham’s book High Potential: How to Spot Manage and Develop Talented People also provides a guide to high potential in the workplace.