How to Create a Sustainable High Potential Development Program

Dr. Anju JainTraci Delgado Talent Management, Coaching, Leadership

The COVID-19 crisis has rocked the world. In this time of epic disruption, we are likely to see a full spectrum of leadership behaviors emerge; some leading by fear and falling into their same old playbooks, with others leading with purpose, agility, and innovation. Many organizations are taking this opportunity to reevaluate the profile of what great leaders look like in their organizations.

Great leaders are hard to find. Even the best-laid strategic plans can go awry if an organization fails to build a strong pipeline of future-ready leaders who can navigate the complexities of today’s business world. Your HIPO employees are critical to your organization’s current and future success.

Who is a High Potential?

Gartner defines a HIPO as “someone with the ability, engagement, and aspiration to rise to and succeed in more senior, critical positions.”

How to Identify Your High Potential Employees

1. Plan for the future

Understand what your organization will need in the future. Identify anticipated leadership roles and positions, including the officer level, top 2-3% of senior positions, key roles, and hard to fill roles that align to the organization’s strategic needs. Accordingly, articulate the needs and requirements for each role. This exercise will illuminate the criteria to define your high potential employees.

2. Determine the ‘high potential’ criteria for your organization

Based on the above assessment, determine the critical competencies and leadership behaviors that will drive your organization forward. In the current and future landscape, traits of empathy, trust, communication, and the ability to develop and lead virtual teams are key to success. Of course, these are over and above the typical technical capabilities, business acumen, and high-performance attributes leaders must possess as a baseline. It is not only about getting results, but also how results are achieved is critical.

As a caveat, don’t mistake high performance for high potential. It is only one of the essentials to be a HIPO. But not sufficient. According to a 2017 study by Management Research Group (MRG), the difference between high potentials and other employees is that HIPOs tend to think more strategically, demonstrate strong problem-solving and decision-making abilities and have a stronger orientation toward achievement.

3. Make the criteria measurable

Take HIPO selection beyond a gut feeling. Measure the criteria. The exercise of measuring ensures things are monitored and the process is objective and transparent.

There are valid and reliable research tools such as the Leadership Effectiveness Analysis (LEA), Leadership Circle Profile, and Korn Ferry 360 that can help an organization measure its HIPO competencies, which improves accuracy and eliminates bias. When used in conjunction with interviews, assessments can help you accurately identify and select HIPO candidates that align with your criteria and demonstrate the behaviors you want to see in your organization.

Don’t forget to cascade this process through the ranks to provide clarity on key behaviors needed to succeed in the organization.

4. Integrate the process in succession planning

No people process can work in isolation. The process for identifying high potentials needs to be part of succession planning. Only then can the HIPOs be developed and given development opportunities appropriate for the roles for which they are being groomed.

5. Train your leaders on the process

While putting the process in place is the first step, don’t assume your leaders will know how to execute it. Train them so they don’t view the process through a lens of their personal biases. Run workshops to ensure reliability. Integrate it into the supervisory training along with yearly refreshers.

Develop and Engage Your HIPOs or Risk Losing Them

HIPOs demonstrate value through drive, accomplishments and vision. They maintain high expectations of themselves and others and as such, contribute to a high-performance culture.

Most HIPOs know that they are outperforming their peers. Without proper engagement, some may seek opportunities elsewhere. It is critical to sustain HIPOs’ engagement and high productivity or risk losing them.

Before you can engage a HIPO, you need to understand them and their motivations. HIPOs are more energized by being helpful and providing support to colleagues, gaining visibility and recognition from their organization. They are less motivated by structure and stability, and are more engaged with risk and change as compared to their peers. HIPOs love to learn, but not always in traditional ways. Implement a multi-faceted development program that includes the following to help your HIPOs reach their full potential and generate real business results:

1. Rotational Assignments

Give HIPOs experience and exposure with well-planned, rotational assignments that stretch their abilities. Tailor each rotation to support a desired outcome for the individual and organization and base it on your HIPOs specific developmental needs.

2. External Coaching

Challenge your assumption that executive coaching is only reserved for senior executives. Organizations now recognize it is an effective way to accelerate and strengthen HIPO development. With insights from 360 feedback and interviews, the coach and HIPO can target key strengths and blind spots, and prioritize areas of development.

3. Action Learning

Some of the most impactful learning experiences involve challenging individuals or cohort teams to tackle immediate business goals or needs, such as enterprise-wide projects. With coaching and mentoring to support participants, the action learning team can own the process and learn first-hand the impact of cooperation, persuasion and communication to achieve success. Teams present their findings and recommendations to senior leadership.

4. Give them Opportunities

Ensure they are moved into the roles for which they were being developed. The biggest disservice organizations do to themselves and their HIPOs is to bypass the process with wildcard entries.


HIPOs are your organization’s future leaders. The COVID-19 crisis provides an opportunity for organizations to rethink and tweak what great leadership should look like to maximize organizational strategy. Develop and engage them at every point in their careers and they will be your biggest competitive advantage. Take an objective, scientific approach to HIPO selection, give HIPOs the best opportunities to learn and grow, and watch them drive your organization forward.

Additional Resources

The HR Guide to Identifying High Potentials

How to Identify, Develop & Retain your High Potential Employees (HIPO)?

The Motivations and Behaviors That Define High Potential Employees


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