The Playbook for Developing High-Potential Employees

5 min read
Jan 2, 2018

How to Develop High Potential Employees

Some of your employees are way more gifted than the rest of their peers, and as a manager, you can tell. Researchers from MIT and Harvard have found that companies can consistently identify 3% to 5% of their workforce as high-potential employees (HiPos), or workers who go above and beyond every day.

These team members are setting a great example for their peers and leading the way whenever they can. They’re the ones who show initiative and take leadership roles whenever they can.

They also work well autonomously, never failing to meet and exceed their goals. Curious by nature, high-potential employees are always asking questions. They don’t buckle under pressure — instead, they excel at making decisions in fast-paced environments.

Because an organization’s HiPos of today are among the best candidates to become its leaders of tomorrow, it is critically important that companies do everything they can to make sure these top performers are engaged. The last thing you want is to lose several of your best workers because they simply feel as though they’re not being challenged, they don’t have enough responsibilities, or they’re being taken for granted.

So, how do you make sure high-potential employees can realize their potential in your organization?


01. Make strategic resource planning decisions

First, you need to take a step back and assess your organization to figure out where needs might open up over the next several years. For example, if you have a 31-year-old CFO who’s extremely happy to work for your company and does a great job, you probably won’t need to start developing that person’s replacement today. But if a senior manager is either nearing retirement or has mentioned they are ultimately interested in starting their own company one day, it would be wise to determine whether you have any potential replacements already working for you.

Anticipate where managerial openings may be in the near future and start putting a plan together to see whether those slots can be filled internally.


02. Revisit those decisions periodically

Over time, the needs of your business will change. Maybe that rock star CFO announced they’ve just accepted a job offer somewhere else that was too good to pass up and they’re leaving in three months.

The more time you spend planning ahead and thinking about where important roles might open up in the future, the more likely you’ll be to have qualified candidates ready to fill them.



03. Identify the right candidates for development

Once you’ve determined which positions you may need to fill in the future, it’s time to analyze your workforce to identify the HiPos who are best suited for each role.

Odds are you already know who your most talented workers are. But do you know which ones possess innate leadership abilities? Do you know which ones have their sights set on moving up the corporate ladder into a managerial position? 

Keep your eyes open to see which workers seem to take the lead whenever group projects pop up. If you’re unsure about whether your talented employees have dreams of becoming managers, the easiest way to find out is by asking them directly. Potential doesn't mean much without motivation.

Read more about the definition of high-potential employees here.


04. Assess their potential

After you’ve selected your high-potential employees, it’s time to assess their potential. Could you see one of your junior or mid-level copywriters moving into the CMO role in five years? If so, which areas of that person’s personality need to be further developed? Which skills would it be most beneficial for that individual to acquire?

Determine your HiPos’ strengths and weaknesses and devise a plan to help them become even stronger workers.


05. Inform high-potential employees of their designation

A 2014 survey conducted by the Center for Creative Leadership found that 77% of respondents placed a "high degree of importance" on being formally identified as a high-potential. HiPos that were only identified informally were twice as likely to be looking for other employment as those who were recognized formally.

If you don’t let these employees know you have your eyes on them, they could feel undervalued and opt to look for a job somewhere else. At the same time, if word gets out that certain employees were given the designation while others were not, the latter group may take it personally and become envious.

The last thing you want is to hurt your company culture or adversely affect team productivity. When informing your top employees of their status, do so in a way that doesn’t discourage everyone else. Be transparent and make sure the rest of the team knows they are valued too.



06. Invest in their training and development

If you hope to promote a HiPo into a managerial role, send that person to nearby management seminars and conferences so that they can learn the tricks of the trade. Send them to management training programs if your organization has them.

If you think an employee may be able to lead your marketing team five years from now, encourage them to hop on as many webinars and attend as many seminars as they can. Let them devote some time each week to reading about new ideas and best practices from other top marketers.


07. Give them more opportunities and more responsibilities

While you won’t be able to copy another company’s development program verbatim and expect the same results, you can and should be influenced by what’s proven to work. The Harvard Business Review notes that 84% of companies use job rotations to help develop their best employees.

As the name suggests, job rotation is the practice of moving high-potential employees into various roles so that they can develop new skills, see things from different perspectives, and gain additional on-the-job experience. Don’t let your HiPos wither away doing the same tasks day in and day out. In addition to learning new things, your workers will also get to know more of their team members on an intimate level — which could pay dividends down the road as they assume managerial responsibilities.


08. Reward and incentivize your high-potential workers

There’s no getting around the fact that, at least to some extent, we all work at jobs to make money. We need to pay our bills, after all.

Your HiPos are ambitious. They expect to make money. Bump their pay regularly to motivate them to stick around. Give them bonuses when they do a great job. This is not to say that you should neglect your other employees’ salaries. You may just want to reward your highest potential employees a bit more.


Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in February 2017 and has been updated for freshness, accuracy, and comprehensiveness. 




New Call-to-action


Describe your image

Get Email Notifications