HiPos: Nurturing The Best

HiPos: Nurturing The Best

A candidate is hired based on what value s/he can “potentially” bring to the team and to the organization. However, it does little justice to the talent management capability of an organization, when after a while, only a select few from this pool remain HiPos.


“The key is to develop and promote insiders who are highly capable of stimulating healthy change and progress, while preserving the core”- Jim Collins

A “high-potential employee” is that employee who has been identified as having the potential, ability, and aspiration for successive leadership positions within the company. Often, these employees are provided with focused development as part of a succession plan and are referred to as “High Potentials.”

According to a research by Bersin by Deloitte, top-performing companies separate the evaluation of “performance” from “potential,” by way of utilizing tools such as two-dimensional grids (nine-box, etc.) to compare high performers with high potentials. Fewer than 15 percent of companies have strong programmes that encompass these areas, and a majority of them fall short in the identification of HiPos, as well as, in the transition and management of HiPos in their new roles. In fact, one of the biggest derailers for leaders is the very organizational tendency to move them into high-powered positions without enough transition support. And, it indicates that there are five elements to a world-class HiPo strategy:

  1.  Plan
  2. Identify
  3. Develop
  4. Transition
  5. Manage

Derailers for a successful HiPo Programme

  • Lack of metric driven process to compare high potentials and high performers
  • Lack of a planned transition of HiPos into new roles.
  • Placement into high power posts without adequate transition support.

In any organization, a HiPo programme is always sought after by everyone. Senior leaders associate themselves with the programme because they view this as a readily available pool to induct (or poach) effective people into their own teams, and, employees see this as a fast-track path to success. Everyone in HR wants to be part of the HiPo programme because of the high-visibility and the limited complexity involved as compared to the other programmes. But what does the existence of a HiPo programme really mean? Does it not mean that the organizational talent management has failed? Well, at least partially. While this may sound unreal, I have mentioned a few as an argument from my end.

Organizations hire HiPos and fail to manage them

What is a candidate’s status in the talent map at the point of hire? Every new hire is a High Potential (HiPo) candidate. And, more often than not, during the hiring process, there are hardly any real measures aimed towards the accurate assessment of a person’s performance in her/his current or previous jobs from an organizational context. For example, in the software industry where work streams in several companies may be similar to one another, some performance measures may be common. Beyond that, there is a lot of company-specific context to performance (such as culture) that truly cannot be assessed unless an individual is actually working in the office. Hence, it would not be wrong to generalize that in most cases, a candidate is hired on the basis of what value she/he can “potentially” bring to the team, and to the organization. What does that indicate about the candidate’s status at the time of hire? Does it not mean that at the point of hire, every candidate is a high potential, trusted to excel in the role envisaged for him/her? More importantly, what does it tell about an organization’s talent management capability, when, after a while, only a select few from this pool remain HiPos?

Organizational noise around a HiPo programme

It is true that there are several factors that contribute as to why an individual falls off the HiPo chart. And, the sheer size of the talent pool is indeed worrisome since the typical size of an organization’s HiPo pool is 5%. This implies that talent management has been able to successfully navigate the aspirations, engagement, and careers of employees, 5 out of 100 times. What it also means is that it has failed 95 times! So, is there a real cause for a drumroll in the organization about having a HiPo programme? Also, given the investments that an organization puts in every individual in a HiPo pool, it simply cannot afford a bigger pool of high potentials without the programme becoming prohibitively expensive.

Breaking the HiPo Hype

While, I am not arguing that organizations should do away with HiPo programmes, it is important to focus on some very foundational and important aspects of talent management and break some of these hypes.

Hype #1- Communicating HiPo status

Several research studies indicate that communicating HiPo status makes noticeable differences in the levels of engagement within the pool, and, not argue about it! But, what does that mean for the others in the team? How are their short-term and long-term motivations affected? Also, how will the communication of the HiPo status impact the pool in the long run? We have heard of the positives of HiPo status communication- improved engagement, more business value delivered, and greater focus. Let us hear some of the negatives- unrealistic long-term self-expectations, unusually large risk-appetite, and, at times- an inflexibility to adapt. Hence the company needs to ponder whether communicating the HiPo status is worth the risk?” Is the organization only interested in short-term values, or, does it have its eyes on the future as well?

Hype #2- Selecting HiPos

The selection of HiPos is a complicated exercise and usually commences with manager nominations and ends in talent reviews. The process assumes that all managers are equally competent to decide who in the pool is a HiPo. In a world where managers are the single biggest reason for attrition, I say that is putting too much faith in them. A high potential candidate is a high performer with three distinct attributes: aspiration, ability and engagement. Hence a metric driven assessment should focus on giving inputs around these three areas.

Top 5 reasons why not to tell HiPos their status:

  • The probability of poaching increases.
  • Increased frustration and turnover if opportunities don’t follow due to changes in business ecosystem.
  • Reduced effort in current roles, assuming success is already achieved.
  • Possibility of sabotage from colleagues.
  • Increased expectation of quick promotions.


Hype #3- Have a HiPo programme, Camouflage it

While there are more reasons than one as to why an organization should have a HiPo programme, it is important for the talent management team to traverse that extra mile to cover it. Talent management teams in many stellar companies have become effective at veiling their HiPo programmes so that no employee feels either blatantly discriminated or highly preferred. In these companies, there are no secret e-mail groups. No instances where the whole office can see the Chairman and the Head of HR inside a meeting room addressing an unlikely team comprising a junior designer sitting next to the head of product management. And definitely, no PowerPoint slides with the words High Potential flashing blazingly through the glass walls of the modern day’s “transparent organizations.”


Vikram is publishing professional with an experience of more than twelve years in Talent and HR strategy. He authors research on talent acquisition, leadership, talent strategy, and learning.


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