How to Create a Sustainable High-Potential Development Program

*Updated August 2023

As we restructure our businesses and development plans in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, many organizations are taking this opportunity to reevaluate the profile of what great leaders look like in their company. Great leaders are hard to find, and identifying leadership potential can be even more difficult. 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 high-potential employees are critical to your organization’s current and future success.

Who are high-potential employees?

The Gartner Glossary defines a high-potential employee (HiPo) as, “someone with the ability, engagement, and aspiration to rise to and succeed in more senior, critical positions.” In other words, they are motivated employees with the potential to become a successful leader. 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.

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 being recognized by their organization. They are less motivated by structure and stability, but are more engaged with risk and change as compared to their peers. 

Identifying high-potential employees

According to a 2017 study by Management Research Group (MRG), the difference between high potentials and other employees is that HiPo candidates tend to think more strategically, demonstrate strong problem-solving and decision-making abilities, and have a stronger orientation toward achievement. Besides exhibiting the qualities of a leader, a HiPo employee also:

  • Has a growth mindset – they don’t waste any opportunities to learn from taking risks and making mistakes. With a growth mindset, an employee is also more willing to listen, solve problems, and not let pride get in the way of their work. 
  • Collaborates with others – a high-potential candidate can draw a group together and facilitate cooperation among teammates. Additionally, they gladly take on more assignments in order to help their colleagues.
  • Exhibits self-awareness – HiPo employees are able to catch more of their own mistakes and are conscious of areas in need of improvement. A self-aware individual is inherently more empathetic towards coworkers as well.

Besides looking for these character traits, it’s important to create a company-specific profile of the ideal HiPo candidate. Below are some helpful tips for developing a unique description for potential leaders in your organization. 

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. Accordingly, articulate the needs and requirements for each role. This exercise will illuminate the criteria to define your high-potential employees.

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 keys 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. Emphasis should be placed not only on the results, but the methods used to achieve them.

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. 

Make leadership criteria measurable

Take HiPo selection beyond a gut feeling. Make the criteria for potential leaders quantifiable and record the progress of each candidate. The exercise of measuring ensures progress is 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. 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 throughout the organization.

What is a HiPo development program?

A high-potential program is a designated framework of career development plans and experiences specifically tailored for employees with high leadership potential. They give HiPo employees a chance to see their company from the view of an executive and provide learning opportunities for growth. BMW, General Electric, and Sony have used HiPo development programs that allow employees to try multiple roles in a short amount of time. This lets the employee discover different facets of the company and learn critical skills for key positions.

By creating a high-potential development program, you engage with HiPo employees, make them feel valued, and retain your top talent. Creating these career coaching and development tracks also engages current senior staff to take on mentorship roles. Overall, a HiPo program can influence company culture on nearly every level.

Considerations for a HiPo development program

When creating a career plan for your HiPos, take a personalized approach, get current leaders involved, and incentivize progress through recognition and rewards. You’ll want to find ways to push your leaders and find and improve their weaknesses while motivating them to perform to their fullest. Implement a multi-faceted development program that includes the following considerations to help your HiPo employees reach their full potential and generate real business results.

Rotational assignments

Give HiPo program candidates experience and exposure to multiple business practices with well-planned, rotational (short-term) assignments that stretch their abilities. Rotational assignments place employees in new roles and situations — either in another department or region — usually to identify and develop skill gaps. Tailor each rotation to support a desired outcome for the individual and organization, and base it on your HiPo employee’s specific developmental needs.

On-site coaching

Challenge your assumption that executive coaching is only reserved for senior executives. Organizations now recognize on-site coaching as 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.

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 to achieve success. Teams then present their findings and recommendations to senior leadership.

Give them opportunities

Ensure leadership candidates are moved into the roles for which they were being developed. The biggest disservice organizations do to themselves and their HiPo leaders is to bypass the process with wildcard entries. Creating internal mobility is imperative to having a sustainable HiPo development plan.

Integrate the process in succession planning

The process of identifying high-potentials needs to be part of succession planning. Envision a designated, ideal role for each HiPo along with actionable goals to get them into said critical position. Only then can the HiPos be given development opportunities appropriate for the roles for which they are being trained.

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 and integrate it into the supervisory training along with yearly refreshers.

Create a sustainable HiPo development plan

HiPos are your organization’s future leaders. Take an objective, scientific approach to HiPo selection and give them the best opportunities to learn, grow, and drive your organization forward. Developing and engaging them at every point in their careers will be your biggest competitive advantage.

Expanding your HiPo program with help from a third-party consultancy can ensure a sustainable and engaging leadership development plan. At Keystone Partners, we draw upon decades of experience in multiple industries to create tailored, organization-specific career development plans. Contact Keystone Partners today and discover how we can help you hire, retain, and develop top talent in your organization.

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