High Potentials – The Broader the Definition, the Better. Truth or Myth?

August 26, 2021 Nada Osama

MythBusters Blog Series: Aon’s Efforts in Debunking the Myths on High Potential 

Growing up, I was often told by my teachers and parents that I have a lot of potential. I did not understand what this meant, but at the time I believed one day I would live up to that special potential.

As a fresh graduate, I came across job ads encouraging high potentials to join for early careers and fast track graduate/ management programs. At the time, I thought they are looking for people like me; the girl with high potential. I applied to many of these jobs and started attending job interviews only to find out how loosely the term ‘high potentials’ was being defined. I was surprised to find that some organizations referred to all youth as high potential, others referred to those with a master’s degree as high potential, and others attributed high potentials to individuals whom they believed possess managerial skills!

In the business world, ‘high potential’ has always been a hot topic where many organizations put a lot of emphasis on, but before we talk about why high potentials are important, we need to determine the accurate definitions of high potentials and understand who these individuals are.

Who Is a High Potential?

Organizations thrive on people’s success and therefore should be willing to invest in the right people. Sounds pretty simple, right? In reality, it is not as simple since many organizations do not know the individuals who are the so called ‘high potentials’. Below are some extracts that demonstrate how ‘high potentials’ are defined or ill-defined for that matter:

  • Individuals who have an innate ability to become senior leaders.
  • Work autonomously and therefore do not need to interact or work with others to make critical decisions or achieve business results.
  • Individual contributors cannot be high potentials.
  • Belong to an elite group in any organization and are usually fast tracked as managers.
  • High potentials are the high performers in any organization.

In my view, these definitions are narrow and overlook the majority of the workforce in organizations. Such ways of identifying high potentials can have a major impact on the employees’ level of engagement, satisfaction, motivation and performance.

At Aon, our view on high potentials can be summarized as follows:

  • They add exponential value because of their innate strengths and capabilities and in the right circumstances they have a higher likelihood of success
  • Everyone has potential and the role of HR is to develop solutions to allow organizations to leverage the full potential of the entire workforce
  • Measuring potential should take into account current and future capabilities as well as aspirations (Can do, Will do, and Want to do)

High potentials are employees who are driven, agile and curious. They are employees who are capable of driving business performance by demonstrating the right behaviors, skills and cognitive abilities that align with the organization’s vision and strategy.

High potentials are also widely defined as individuals who consistently outperform their colleagues and achieve high performance ratings.

Whilst it is true that a high potential possesses the successful behaviors and cognitive horsepower required by the organization, the caveat here is that the focus on ‘performance’ is usually misconstrued by many, giving rise to a set of issues and thus highlighting the need to differentiate between performance and potential.

The Performance Vs Potential Dilemma

Over the years, several studies have associated high performance with high potential. Organizations treat their high performers as their high potentials. A deeper look into Talent Management Policies and Frameworks of organizations reveal their relation to high potentials whereas there is great dependence on infamous tools and processes such as ‘performance appraisal’, ‘performance review’ and ‘performance cycle’. These are fundamentally used for acknowledging and recognizing high potential individuals. They are also used for making critical decisions around promotions, salary raises and bonuses.

This raises critical questions such as: Why are we in this age and time continuing to solely look into performance to identify and determine the fate of high potentials in organizations?
This also brings me to another set of questions: Are ‘High Potential Policies and Frameworks’ trivial or secondary tools that organizations resort to? Are they a spur of the moment decision? Or are they seen as a trendy business concept that has become popular over the last few decades?

Many organizations invest a lot of time and resources in promoting and implementing their HiPo programs, but the truth is that not all organizations have a consistent approach. Additionally, only a small number of organizations effectively utilize the outputs of such programs. Unfortunately, HiPo programs have become a trend with many organizations seeking external consultants to implement them without putting in enough effort in actually identifying and developing the high potentials.

What Should Organizations Do With Their High Potentials?

‘The only thing worse than training your employees and having them leave is not training them and having them stay’ (Henry Ford).
While training can be vital across the employees’ lifecycle, it should not be the only focus of employers.

Organizations should strive to accurately identify their employees’ potential and provide the right tools for leveraging their strengths and fulfilling their development needs.  Here are a few tips to set this activity in motion:

  • Know your people – When identifying high potentials, make sure you consider a wide range of aspects such as the right behaviors, abilities, aspirations and whether they are aligned with your organization’s strategy and culture.
  • Assess carefully – Go beyond the performance status. While it is recommended that a manager’s rating and other key metrics are considered such as tenure and experience, it is also important to conduct the right psychometric assessment tools to assess the behavioral capacity and cognitive horsepower.
  • Talk Openly – Organizations need to clearly communicate their definition of high potentials and articulate their high potential programs. Secondly, communication needs to cascade from top management across the organizations in a transparent and honest fashion. Thirdly, organizations should ensure high potentials understand what is expected of them and what they are getting in return.
  • D is for Development – Many organizations get wound up in the development dilemma. Development in a business context should not be all about training courses and theory. Make it practical; ensure that you are offering more than just classroom training. Organizations need to consider the 70-20-10 model wherein most development comes on-the-job (i.e job rotation, secondments and by implementing a talent mobility initiative where employees can try different jobs).

When it comes to high potentials, there is no one-size-fits all. With a clear definition of high potential, organizations also draw the much-needed distinction between how high performers and high potentials are perceived and recognized. ‘Not all high performers are high potentials’ should be a trending slogan in organizations not to belittle high performers but to give them their due weightage and balance by designing programs specifically for their development and incentivization. High potentials on the other hand need to be identified by their aspirations and how they align with the organization’s long-term strategic direction.

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About the Author

Nada Osama

Nada Osama is a Senior Consultant at Aon’s Assessment Solutions with an educational and professional background in Psychology and Human Resources. Nada has gained extensive expertise over the past decade working in the MENA region. Nada manages several clients in diverse industries such as Telecommunication, Finance, Government and Aviation, helping to support their Talent Acquisition, Learning & Development initiatives and wider Talent Strategies. Nada is particularly interested in raising awareness and educating others about the common myths within the Talent Management and Assessments space.

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