Identifying and Developing High Potential Leaders

With the recent tightening of budgets, particularly in Learning & Development, our coaches/consultants have observed a defined trend – a significant reduction of development investment on high potential leaders. With budgets likely to expand over the next 6-12 months, it's timely to revisit the importance of investing in these high potentials (HiPo’s).

Career Transition

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Before looking at the importance of this investment though, it is critical to reflect on the identification of these HiPo’s. Are they those that you expect to reach a senior executive level, those that will remain loyal to the business, or simply those that have been high performers to date?

Too often, we have seen staff identified as HiPo’s only to realise that they have no desire/drive to achieve at a higher level within the organisation. High performance does not necessarily equate to high leadership potential.

An example. I was recently working with Craig, a subject matter expert who had been working in his specialty area for 5 years before being promoted to a management role, with expectations that he would become one of the ‘leaders’ within the business. Craig had been recognised as a high performer in his previous role, however since promotion had been finding it difficult to achieve the KPI’s set. This was a significant turnaround for him, and he had subsequently gone from being a highly engaged and contented employee to feeling largely underutilised and dissatisfied. Through coaching, we quickly identified the cause of this turnaround, with Craig finally able to admit that he would prefer to return to his ‘old’ role despite a loss in salary and status. Recognising this, we then worked on creating a ‘win-win’ situation for he and the business. Keeping it short, Craig was able to renegotiate his role, whereby he would return to a subject matter expert role, relinquishing his management responsibilities, but taking on greater responsibility as a senior technical expert by providing a mentoring/consulting role to other team members. Craig was instantly more engaged (whilst maintaining his salary), his team again had the benefit of his expertise, and the business retained a highly valued employee.

Needless to say, this situation could have been prevented with more targeted identification of HiPo’s in the first place, including delineated streams for High Performers and High Potentials. Whilst the eventual outcome was a ‘win-win’, a significant amount of time and money had been invested (by both Craig and the business) to that point which was unnecessary.

So, what defines a High Potential Leader? This differs from one organisation to the next and we work with our client organisations to ensure a clear definition of HiPo’s within their business. However, experience shows us that there appear to be some common elements:

  • Work performance and organisational alignment
  • Career aspirations
  • Flexibility / Adaptiveness/ Agility

One of the key factors to remember when identifying high potentials within an organisation is that ‘treating everyone the same’ is not necessarily fair. Rewarding people for their achievements, aspirations and commitment to the business is fair. Again, it is important to reward people for their strengths – are they a high potential leader, or simply a high performer? They can both be rewarded, but in different ways.

Now that we’ve looked at the importance of identifying the right people to invest in, let’s revisit the importance of investing in HiPo’s in the first place. Why invest in HiPo’s?

The answer is simple. Organisations thrive or stagnate based on the quality of their people. To retain high quality people, you need to invest in them and reward them for their efforts. Quality staff are far more likely to stay engaged in their role, and the business as a whole, if they can see the big picture, and where they fit within it – now, and in the future.

It’s not always a ‘one size fits all’ approach though. Each of your high potentials will be experiencing different circumstances, be faced with different challenges and have different aspirations for their growth. They need a tailored approach to their development, and can often feel ‘let down’ if they’re viewed as just one of the participants in the development group. Applying the learnings of their development program recognises their individual circumstances, and ensures that the solutions they put in place are relevant and have impact.

For more information about the importance of developing High Potentials, please contact Simon Altschwager on 1300 788 678 or, or refer to our website at

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