22 Characteristics of High-Potential Employees

13 min read
Aug 19, 2019

high potential

Even if your team is made up solely of supremely talented individuals, there are always a few employees who stand out from the pack. 

According to the Harvard Business Review, these high-potential employees account for an average of 5% of any company’s workforce. 

High-potential employees (HiPos) excel in their current roles, but they also possess the skills and knowledge necessary to thrive in managerial positions and senior roles, too.

Importance of identifying top talent for employers

High-potential employees need to know that you recognize their potential. In fact, a recent study showed that 77% of HiPos feel that being recognized as high-potential talent is important to them. 

These workers want help in identifying a career path and they also want support in carving that path. For these reasons, it’s critical that managers identify HiPos early on in order to retain them and keep them engaged. 

Employers who identify top talent increase the likelihood of retaining top talent and reaping the benefits of a more engaged employee.

high potential 7

Benefits of high-potential employees in your company

There are several benefits to having HiPos in your company. 

First and foremost, they are likely to learn and progress faster, which means you’re spending less money to develop them. Their rapid career growth also helps raise the bar for other employees. A little competition never hurt anyone! It’s no surprise that studies repeatedly show companies that invest in the identification and development of HiPos show better performance financially. 

Finally, as high-potential employees continue to climb in their career with your company, they are also able to spot and develop other HiPos. In turn, this creates a pipeline of star employees that can help your company thrive.

So, how exactly can a manager go about identifying which of their workers have the most potential? Here are 22 characteristics that define most high-potential employees.

1. They’re good at what they do

Research from Gartner showed that high-potential talent brings 91% more value to an organization. What’s more, in comparison to their peers, they exert 21% more effort. 

The numbers say it all. 

High-potential employees are extremely talented and produce consistently great work. You can also track their performance with 360-degree feedback in order to paint a clear picture of their current career situation as seen not only by you and the employee, but also by coworkers, subordinates, and customers. 

When you have a special project on the horizon, you can then use their goals and feedback to look toward your HiPos to see whether they have the bandwidth to get it done. 

After all, these are the employees that will lead your organization in the future. They desire the authority to make decisions that will impact the organization.  

high potential 5

2. They jump on leadership opportunities

When challenges arise and problems need to be solved, high-potential employees want the chance to step up to the plate. They are looking for growth opportunities and are generally not afraid to take on something new. 

HiPos aspire to be company leaders in the future. To this end, they see each new responsibility or task to make an impact as a stepping stone. Whenever group projects materialize or you simply can’t manage a certain initiative on your own, top talent will be quick to volunteer to assume leadership roles. 

Remember, they want the opportunity to make an impact. HiPos possess innate leadership skills and are always looking to put them into practice and develop them further. They need to know you see and support their leadership potential

Provide them with an opportunity to mentor a new employee, let them lead a group, ask them to serve on a committee, or invite them to participate in an industry conference and report their experiences back to the team.

3. They work well autonomously

As a manager, you don’t have to worry about asking these employees how much progress they’re making on a certain project or initiative. They get things done every time and are completely reliable. You can trust them to do their jobs well without having to check in.

This is a good thing. Autonomous employees report a greater sense of well-being and job satisfaction. HiPos enjoy an autonomous work environment because it provides greater control over their daily tasks and how their schedule is structured. 

Since they do not require as much guidance to remain productive and excel, they appreciate not being micromanaged.

high potential 6

4. They take initiative

The most talented employees don’t wait around for you to tell them what to do. They are constantly brainstorming new ideas and are eager to take on more work. Whenever a spontaneous project pops up, they’re usually the first to volunteer to take care of it.

Innovation helps your organization get and stay ahead. So, getting the desire to take initiative is a key benefit of hiring and identifying HiPos. 

As a manager, you can encourage this characteristic by allowing employees to gain more skills in their areas of interest. Schedule regular one-on-one meetings to make sure you clearly understand their personal and professional goals. What can you do to help them achieve these goals? 

Pro tip: While initiative is a great characteristic of HiPos, be sure they don’t become overloaded by taking on too much.

5. They are interested in where the company is going

Many workers get a job to earn the money necessary to pay bills. They do what’s required of them so they can continue collecting paychecks. 

HiPos, on the other hand, are much more invested in the success of the companies they work for. They care about the company’s future. 

Make sure you identify and foster this characteristic early on, as it benefits both you and them. The more knowledge they have of the company early on, the more likely they are to succeed in being a successful leader in the future. 

You can support this interest by inviting them to higher-level meetings when appropriate. Let your high-potential employees know you trust them. Ask them about their thoughts after the meeting and help shape their understanding of the company’s future.

6. They don’t buckle under pressure

These team members are ready for whatever comes their way. When things get heated at work, they don’t lose their composure. Instead, they remain calm, cool, and collected—even when the going gets tough. 

Many even thrive in high-pressure situations—a quality you need in future leaders. 

Remember that when managers tend to buckle, their employees follow. A strong and steady leader is an absolute asset to your organization. 

Additionally, a HiPos ability to thrive under pressure means they also aren’t as hesitant to take risks and fail. They see challenging situations as growth opportunities and don’t just walk away when times get tough.

7. They ask questions

Because they are interested in their company’s future, your future stars ask a lot of questions. They’re curious, and eager to understand company strategy and decisions. Even if they aren’t in managerial positions just yet, high-potential employees want to make sure that the right decisions are made every time. 

As a manager, you can support these inquisitive minds by helping them seek out resources to learn. Do you have strategic plans, company policies and procedures, data, or communications pieces they could learn from? Be sure to share what you can. 

Recommend a mentor to them, too—someone who has been in their shoes once and understand their desire for growth. And, when you make a decision as a leader yourself, let them know why you made that particular choice whenever you can. They want to understand the thought process driving the company forward.

8. They’re eager to develop new skills

While some employees might just go through the motions, star employees are always interested in learning new things. They strive to become better workers, and they make moves to improve on a daily basis. 

To this end, these folks read up on industry news and continue sharpening their skills so they can become even more effective. They very clearly show their desire to develop new skills in a variety of ways—whether that be asking for more responsibility or seeking out new training and certification opportunities. 

It’s important that managers identify their potential and help them to continue to develop.

9. They help their coworkers when they can

High-potential employees understand that the success of their organization depends on the efforts of everyone who works there. 

When their coworkers are overwhelmed, these employees offer to help lighten the load by taking on additional tasks and responsibilities. 

In doing so, high-potential employees can help to foster trust and autonomy among their team. This kind of trust, collaboration, and consensus is becoming increasingly important to organizations.

high potential 4

10. They contribute to the positivity of the workplace

It’s easy to lose your temper at work—particularly when you’re overwhelmed. 

High-potential employees, however, understand the importance of maintaining their composure and helping create an enjoyable work environment. They may have their bad days like everyone else. But, by and large, they are noticeably positive. 

This is especially important when you consider a HiPos ultimate goal. While individual career success is attainable for many HiPos, the ability to make a positive impact on an entire team or organization as a leader is less common. 

Consider how much the positive attitude and outlook of a leader affects an entire team. Leaders who remain positive are more likely to express gratitude and empathy—and to empower and develop others.

11. They can accept not always being right

Even the smartest people in the world are wrong from time to time. 

Your rising stars know this, which is why they are willing to negotiate on their ideas—and in some cases abandon them altogether. When they realize someone has a better idea, they are willing to support it. 

This particular characteristic is perhaps more important than ever. In today’s rapidly changing business environment, leaders must be willing to accept new ideas. Success is only achieved through constant learning, review and realignment. Leaders must be willing to remain flexible and adapt their ideas to the environment.

12. They take on responsibilities outside of their job description

Your star employees know that their jobs don’t have to be confined to what’s written in their job description. In fact, they are eager to take on additional responsibilities and often tackle tasks they’re not directly responsible for. 

Where does this desire come from? HiPos view new responsibilities as opportunities to grow and gain skills and experiences they would not otherwise have. 

For that reason, they aren’t afraid of the risk and are instead driven by the reward. New responsibilities don’t always mean adding a large workload to their plate. 

HiPos also find value in experiences like serving on new committees and mentoring others. Remember that, while this group of employees are eager and driven, they can also be burned out by taking on too much—something for managers to take into consideration when reviewing a HiPo’s responsibilities.

13. They recognize their coworkers’ hard work

Remember, your rising stars are eager to be leaders. 

The best leaders recognize the good in others. HiPos show recognition and gratitude for their coworkers and show interest in the greater good of your company. 

While it’s easy to take someone else’s contributions for granted, your most talented employees understand that their peers enjoy being recognized for their hard work, too. 

They routinely thank their colleagues for their efforts and make sure great work never goes unnoticed.

14. They want to be recognized

Like most employees, these individuals want to be recognized. It’s not just about the work they’re doing, however. HiPos want to know you see their potential. 

Studies have shown that if high-potential employees are not formally recognized by their company as being high potential, they may be less likely to see themselves as a future leader in the organization. 

These employees are self-motivated and eager. So, if they don’t feel a commitment from your company, they may be more likely to take their talents elsewhere.

high potential 3

15. They get better at their job with constructive feedback

Because the highest potential employees are always trying to do better, they love getting feedback—both the good and the bad. 

When their boss tells them they are doing something wrong or could be doing something better, not only do they listen to the advice, they consciously try to improve because of it. 

While you may not enjoy giving negative feedback, research has shown employees aren’t afraid to receive it. Constructive and helpful feedback benefits your entire organization, and is especially important to employees who are so highly invested in your company and their own future there.

16. They are vocal about career aspirations

You won’t be left in the dark as to what your high-potential employee’s aspirations are. They are very vocal about where they see themselves in the future and what career goals they hope to accomplish. 

Why? Because they know they can’t get there alone. They know they need a leader who sees their potential and will support and guide them. 

HiPos aren’t just career-minded. They often have specific goals they are focused on. 

Use your one-on-one time to determine what these goals are and how you can help. The more clearly you understand their goals, the more you can do to support them and keep them around long-term—which benefits everyone.

17. They have friends in the office

Remember, HiPos generally have a positive attitude and express their gratitude and support for others. 

Because of such characteristics, these employees tend to get along with everyone in the office swimmingly. Their relationship-building skills can have a positive impact on your bottom line and help to reduce turnover. 

After all, no one wants to come to work with someone who is repeatedly negative. Just one star employee can boost the effectiveness of others from 5-15%!

18. They work well with cross-function groups

Skilled team members can be counted on to do their work on their own. But the best future leaders are also great people to have involved in group projects. 

There are several characteristics of top talent that support their success in groups. As discussed, they are open to new ideas and are not afraid to be wrong. 

Additionally, they are committed to the mission and goals of the company. They know that what’s best for the group as a whole will lead to the best outcomes for the company. 

These employees also support and encourage group members in an effort to foster the best environment for success.  

19. They are trusted by their peers

Due to their hard work, congenial attitudes, and dedication to their jobs, HiPos have earned the trust of their peers. Colleagues respect them and go to them when they need advice. They value this trust and view it as a leadership opportunity and a chance to support others. 

Star employees enjoy being someone that others can go to for help. They want to earn that trust because it will benefit them as a leader in the future.

high potential 2

20. They possess a high level of emotional intelligence

A high level of emotional intelligence means that HiPos are more easily able to monitor their own emotions, as well as the emotions of others. They use emotional information to then guide their behavior—a highly valued skill in leadership roles. 

It’s a lot easier to be an effective leader when you’re able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Employees who have a high level of emotional intelligence are empathetic and understand where other people are coming from. 

This skill impacts communication and is a powerful tool in exceeding goals and creating a productive organizational culture.

21. They live and breathe company culture

Your future leaders will be living embodiments of company culture. They reinforce that culture with everything they do—which encourages their peers to do the same. 

As a result, the office becomes a more enjoyable place to be—and, collectively, the team becomes more productive. 

It’s particularly important that your company culture is set up to support these employees as well. HiPos aren’t necessarily as interested in the highest salary as they are a culture that supports them moving up in the organization and achieving their goals. They thrive in a culture that is right for them—one that is a culture committed to growth.

22. They want to be engaged

Remember, high-potential employees are driven and motivated. The wheels are always turning and they can easily become bored and disengaged if they are not challenged and supported. 

Research has shown that 55% of high potentials with low engagement are prone to leaving their company. In order to keep them engaged, make sure you clearly understand their goals and discuss how you can work together to support those goals. Assign them a coach or mentor who can also help them to maintain a vision of their future. Make sure there you have well-established high-potential employee programs in place. 

Programs like these are a selling point in attracting top talent and can help you retain star employees as well.

How to Retain Top Performers?

Recruiting a new employee is much more expensive than retaining a great employee over the long term. High-potential employees save you time and money by eagerly seeking out opportunities to grow and develop. Use these 22 characteristics to help you identify your HiPos so you don’t miss out on retaining a highly engaged star employee.

Nick Smarrelli, CEO at Gadellnet Consulting Services, has used TINYpulse to boost his company’s retention rate from 60% to 95% in the span of 12 months. Schedule a call to learn how you can do the same for your business. 


Describe your image

Get Email Notifications