How to Identify High-Potential Employees in Your Organization

Looking for general markers of Hi-Pos — ability, social skills, and motivation — can guide you to your company’s future superstars.

As both an educator and a consultant, I am often asked questions related to attracting and retaining the best employees in an organization. These questions are undoubtedly important, and they reflect an issue many firms face nowadays. Dealing with this issue usually requires a lot of time and resources. What if an organization is unable to quickly find and recruit the necessary number of highly talented people to fill key jobs? Then what? Well, the answer is simple: Do your best to identify high-potential employees (HiPos) within your company and develop them into starts to cover those key jobs.  

Investing in the right people profoundly maximizes organizational returns. For example, the top 1% of these “right people” account for 10% of organizational output, while the top 20% accounts for 80% of the output. Moreover, the payoff from employing top talent increases as a function of job complexity. In other words, for less complex jobs such as some light manufacturing positions, top employees outperform the rest by a margin of about 50%, while for highly complex jobs such as senior leadership, the contribution of top performers is more than 100% compared to the average one.

[To read more of Vlad Vaiman’s thought leadership click here]

Note that HiPos are not yet your best performers, but if you identify them and invest in their development, they will become that top talent you need. HiPos can be defined as potentially key people in key jobs who – with the right type of professional and personal development – will consistently generate high levels of output that influence the success or failure of their organizations. HiPos are, therefore, very important to any company – not only are they your future top talent, they are also force multipliers, since adding a star member to a team boosts its performance by an average of 10%.

So, how do you predict who is likely to become a key driver of your organization’s performance in the near future? One recent article from the Harvard Business Review suggests that there are three general markers of Hi-Pos: ability, social skills, and motivation.  

Ability is an individual’s proficiency in the job he or she is assigned. The best indicator of current ability is demonstrating the knowledge and skills necessary to perform the key tasks that comprise the job. If you have an employee who is showing promise, hand him or her a more complex job, one that requires something extra to accomplish. This way, you will certainly see whether that employee is able to learn and sharpen required knowledge and skills. As to potential ability, it is advisable to subject your promising employees to very widely available IQ tests as well as various learning ability tests. The best way to identify those with high ability, however, is to observe them for signs of creativity, persistence, and strategic thinking.

Social skills may include such critical components as communication and problem solving, and they reflect a growing significance of teamwork and collaboration in modern organizations, as well as of building and maintaining mutually respectful relationships with colleagues. Two other skill sets are even more important for HiPos – the ability to manage oneself and manage others. These two skill sets constitute what is known as emotional intelligence, which is proven to predict success, or failure, of future leaders. Ability to manage oneself includes such essential elements as empathy and capability to understand how your moods and actions may affect other people. The higher your employees’ ability to manage themselves, the better they can handle increased pressure, act with integrity and dignity, and deal with adversity. Ability to manage others refers to how well your HiPos can relate to other people, establish and maintain collaborative working relationships, forge alliances, and be influential and persuasive. There are quite a few psychometric tests out there that can help you to measure both current EQ and its potential, which can be further refined through training, development, and everyday work interactions.

The third and final marker of a HiPo is motivation, which can be defined as the will and drive to work hard, achieve the goal, and get the job done. Talent is generally thought of as a sum of ability and social skills, while potential is a result of multiplying talent and motivation. To simplify, one’s potential is the sum of ability and social skills multiplied by motivation. If any of the components is not there, there is not much potential. If an employee demonstrates both ability and social skills but shows no motivation to perform and achieve, this person is clearly not your HiPo, not your future top talent. Motivation can be assessed by standardized tests such as the Myers–Briggs Type Indicator that measure conscientiousness, achievement motivation, and ambition. You can also gauge motivation through observations by looking at how hard an individual works, whether or not he or she is willing to take on extra duties, and whether the employee is ready to sacrifice.

Most organizational leaders can identify their HiPos and begin upgrading their talent by taking note of those who demonstrate ability, social skills, and motivation. Remember that not everyone in your company will be high potentials who are highly able, socially skilled, or motivated, but if you can find those who are, you will end up with a higher proportion of future stars who will definitely benefit your organization in the long run.

[For more on Cal Lutheran University’s School of Management’s approach to Talent Representation click here]