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.

Why high potential employees leave their positions

Every organisation that has thought about their recruitment strategies over the years has found that they will be attracting great talent. In fact, you could argue that it is the primary concern for many businesses - after all a business is only as good as its employees.

But, when these organisations are faced with their best, their high potential employees leaving their positions, sometimes there are reasons for these decisions and more often than not, they can be easily identified. Here are some of the more common reasons why high potential employees leave their positions.

Lack of growth and development

If you’ve hired a top performer, they will come to either know that they are before you’ve hired them, or once they are in your business. But once they are in your business, they will have career goals or aspirations that need to be fulfilled. They know that they have potential and they want to maximise it. 

One of the things that can cause the most amount of turbulence in this career shaping is either not being seen by the management for their potential or even something as simple as being passed over for promotions or pay increases. 

It could be that they are languishing in the role for too long or they feel that they can’t achieve long term growth and development at your organisation. There is no identifiable career direction.

Lack of recognition

To back up the idea of a lack of growth, the lack of recognition plays a significant role if someone leaves the organisation. It’s a very basic need, to feel valued. Whether it is our personal or professional lives, to know that we do have an impact in some way is essential to staying motivated. 

In a professional context, a mistake that organisations make is rewarding by adding work to the top performer’s daily list. Instead, recognition should be often, and not always a bonus but even small recognitions in meetings, conversations or organisational catch-ups.

Unmanageable workload

Because you have a high performing member of the team, it is very common to think that they can take on more work, sometimes even sustain the workload of two or more people for a period of time. 

It’s a common trend of giving hard working/high potential employees more tasks or tasks of greater difficulty to push their skillset forward that can create unmanageable workloads leading to burn out, mental exhaustion and even sometimes, physical illness. 

Pay or benefit expectations are not met

This once again feeds into the lack of recognition. How much does somebody who outperforms others deserve in their pay packet? That’s a question that is not really asked and thus, not really answered. But for the high performer, if they do not feel  they are adequately rewarded for their efforts, they may seek greater compensation elsewhere.

Lack of autonomy

Top performers know that they are great at their jobs, in fact, they can do a lot of what they do in their sleep - and when challenged, they can rise to it. However, micro-management tactics or not giving them enough scope to get on with their workload and achieve what they know they can, can cause wider issues. 

One such problem that arises is that they can feel a lack of trust to complete their work, turning a high performing worker into someone willing to leave!

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.

How do you measure someone’s potential? 

In order to then better understand a high performing employee you must take the time to properly assess their skills and aptitude to the role.

This guide on how to measure someone’s potential covers many of the main topics to help you succeed in managing someone’s potential and equally how to measure it.

Some of the topics from the guide include;

High Potential Trait Indicator (HPTI)  

The Thomas Personality assessment, 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.

Based on the Big 5 personality model - Openness, Conscientiousness, Extrovertism, Agreeableness and Neuroticism, this can help better identify an employee’s suitability to a role. 

Evaluation of their attitude towards new tasks or responsibilities

Based on the Personality assessment, a participant’s responses are reflected as a position on a continuum, for each of the six traits - from low, through moderate and optimal to excessive. Too much or too little of each trait will hold its own advantages and disadvantages. Certain traits and certain levels of these traits will indicate a high potential for success, and could also highlight characteristics that threaten to derail a candidate who seems otherwise successful. 

Willingness to learn

In the assessment which looks at different behaviours, one analysis can show a high capability to learn, to cooperate with others and how they manage their behaviours. HiPo employees generally illustrate the behaviour you would associate with high-performance individuals. This can be linked to their emotional intelligence; how they will handle the emotions of others as well as how they themselves behave under pressure.

Whilst these assessment tools are very good at giving an indication of someone’s potential and suitability for a role, high potential can be difficult to measure and is not an exact science. 

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.

How do you retain high potential employees

We’ve seen what actions are sometimes taken to lose high potential employees, and even gotten to understand that high potential can be measured in some form to help with recruitments, but what is it that organisations need to do to retain their valuable staff? Here are some ideas; 

Investing in their development

You have an employee who has a lot of potential, you need to feed whatever it is that makes them stand out. At the end of the day, development feeds retention. 

It’s only natural that anyone wants to get better at something and why can’t it be that a high performing individual wants to do the same in their line of work? Providing employees with the ability to see opportunity within the business is only a positive. Employees who get these opportunities are 2 times as likely to say they plan on staying with their employer. So, there is a direct correlation between growing and developing your talent and retaining your talent.

Be sure to tailor the needs of the employee to their potential talent. Develop a training plan that is regularly updated and also has regular check-ins.

Providing the right support and management

One of the best ways to retain the best talent is to ensure that the employee is matched with the right manager, someone who has the time and motivation to develop their high potential employee. 

By doing this, they are not only getting the support that they need, but equally, they are getting the leadership that is required to achieve for the organisation. 

And what’s the alternative? Some jobs look amazing on paper but are wholly marred by an unappreciative manager who stifles the ability to grow. 

There’s an old aphorism: People don’t leave jobs, they leave managers - don’t waste your best talent on managers that won’t appreciate their value.

Give them opportunity to lead

The reasons as to why a HiPo (High Performing Employee) will want to leave is that they can feel like they are not being valued. Every employee has to show they have the capability to grow and develop into different team roles but HiPos in particular, want to face the challenge of leading a team.

It’s a risky move, but practice also makes perfect. Remember, your future-leaders also need to be empowered to make a meaningful impact, drive value and make things happen for your company. It helps them feel connected to your organisation. 

Who is going to be the new blood that takes on the business in years to come? It’s going to be the high potential employees. Give them the experience of leading teams or projects.


Mentorship is often viewed as a way to develop an employee, but in fact, if you flip it on its head, mentorship is a way to retain employees, especially high value employees. By providing a point of regular contact for feedback, advice and guidance, mentors can give a better world view about the business, the experience needed to move forwards and even cement strong work and friendship bonds. 

The turnover rate for employees with two years or less at their current organisation who don’t have a mentor? 26%. 

Employees with a mentor? That number drops to 8%.

Measure progress

One of the best ways to ensure that HiPOs stay is that you can find a way to measure what they want and need from a role. Track, measure and feedback on progress to encourage employees to continue their development plan, and track progress in their overall career plan. 

What do they want to achieve? How close are they to achieving it? What else needs to be done or are they going to do earlier than expected? You can only answer these questions by asking them in the first place.

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.