Blog Post

What Are the Characteristics of High Potential Employees?

Cornerstone Editors

High potential employees, aka HiPos, are that illustrious group of individuals who are the rising stars in your organization.

While your organization may have a defined process for identifying high-potential employees, what may be missing is a defined process for keeping them engaged so you can retain them

Because if you assume your HiPo employees are engaged, you risk underperformance and turnover. The key is to create a well-managed talent pipeline where HiPos see a future for themselves in your organization.

And frankly, a well-managed talent pipeline can give your organization a competitive edge, so understanding what makes an employee a HiPo and the special tactics you need to keep them engaged matters.

What is a HiPo Anyway?

According to Corporate Executive Board (CEB), high potential employees have three key characteristics in common: aspiration, ability, and engagement.

Image sourced courtesy of CEB and used with permission.

So how would these attributes be demonstrated in the workplace? Let's look at an example with an imaginary high-potential employee "Emily".

Aspiration is the desire to take on responsibilities, challenges and rewards typically demonstrated by those in more senior roles.

To demonstrate aspiration, Emily might proactively meet with her manager and ask to take on a new assignment that is more challenging than those she typically works on, or one that requires more personal responsibility, accountability or decision making. What's key is that Emily takes the initiative and identifies herself to her manager as someone ready and willing for more complex challenges.

Ability is a combination of innate characteristics and learned skills

Emily has a very easy-going personality that makes her a natural when it comes to dealing with customers. Over the years, she's augmented this innate characteristic with learned skills, so she's become adept at managing difficult conversations with customers. Emily is now able to handle customer complaints and difficulties in a calm, responsive manner, and deliver exceptional customer service.

Engagement is the employee's emotional and rational commitment, discretionary effort and intent to stay.

Emily is a high performer. She's been with her employer for two years and always goes out of her way to ensure customers are happy. Emily enjoys her work, but she also has ambitions. She recently informed her manager that she wants to apply for a role in a different part of the company; one that will challenge her and help her develop further.

Her manager recognizes that Emily wants to expand her skills and grow. She's ready for new challenges in her career and sees opportunities to pursue them in the company. As a good people manager, he'll support Emily in moving on (and eventually up) in her career.

Aspiration, Ability, Engagement-Putting it All Together in One Package

In essence-high-potential employees like what they do, want to do more, always go the extra mile, and see a future for themselves in your organization.

The Risk... Keeping Them Engaged

Because of their unique characteristics, keeping high-potential employees engaged is more important, but also a bit more challenging. They can be easily disillusioned by poor management and a lack of opportunities for growth. And they can also more easily find employment elsewhere should they decide to jump ship.

So, what can you do to keep your HiPos engaged and build your talent pipeline?

Scott Engler of CEB shared the four imperatives to reengage your high potential employees:

1. Equip your managers to surface critical engagement risks. For example, many managers don't understand the vast range of reasons that can affect turnover risk. Train your managers on the importance of maintaining a regular, ongoing dialog with employees (and especially high-potential employees), so they can proactively identify and address those risks.

2. Require HiPos to commit to the organization. Simply telling someone they are a HiPo may not be enough to engage and retain them. Establish a "talent deal" that provides them with a variety of special opportunities, benefits and commitments, but expect organization-defined commitments or responsibilities from them in return.

3. Align HiPo and senior leader expectations for compelling HiPo career paths. HiPos value fair, diverse and structured career paths, so a standard process to help facilitate their movement across the business may be warranted. Ensure senior leader buy-in to high-potential development programs so they don't get derailed.

4. Provide high-risk opportunities in a supportive environment. HiPos need highly challenging development opportunities that allow them to advance their career. But these opportunities need to be carefully managed. HiPos also need a supportive work environment to mitigate their risks and drive success.

Nurture your high potential employees and maximize corporate potential

How you develop, reward and retain your high-potential employees can have a huge impact on your ability to groom future leaders, and increase or sustain high productivity.

Your Turn: What is your organization doing to identify and retain high potential employees?

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