How to Develop High-Potential Employees


Jun 05, 2024


Knowing how to develop high-potential employees starts with identifying them. A high potential is usually considered to be someone with the personality characteristics, experience, and readiness to step into senior leadership. So, how can organisations build an effective high-potential development program?

Recently on The Science of Personality, Christopher J. Duffy, MBA, managing partner at Hogan Assessments, spoke about high-potential employees—a group that organisations spend a tremendous amount of time and resources to define, identify, and develop.

“There is no silver bullet to this equation,” Christopher said. “The most effective high-potential programs usually take considerable resources and support.”

Let’s discuss who high-potential employees are, how to identify them, and how to develop them.

Who Are High Potentials?

When organisations talk about high-potential employees, they usually mean people with the potential for leadership succession. Organisations are looking for people to step into critical upper leadership roles.

The search for successor talent starts with making an accurate evaluation of the readiness that employees show in their current positions. Organisations must effectively prepare and develop those individuals for whatever their destinations might be.

Every organisation has a slightly different definition of what counts as potential, which makes identifying high potentials more complex. To some, the criteria for high potentials are related to workplace politics, reputation, or even a golf handicap. To others, the criteria come from performance metrics and other analytics.

“Multimodal high-potential programs are the most effective,” Christopher said. They tend to combine contextually specific expectations for the future role, as well as clear psychometrics and past performance data. Finding successor talent isn’t a quick or standardised process. Identifying characteristics of high-potential talent to align with organisational needs requires intention.

Personality Characteristics of High Potentials

The specific definition of a high-potential employee differs based on the organisation and role. Nevertheless, our personality data have shown three broad skill groups that help high potentials become successful leaders.

  • Functional – A high-potential employee has mastered the core foundational characteristics of following processes and being rewarding to work with.
  • Social – A high-potential employee excels at creating and inspiring followership within their group and can self-manage the dark side of charisma.
  • Effective – A high-potential employee shows the ability to build and maintain a high-performing team related to their leadership role. They engage and influence that team to achieve collective outcomes.

High potential isn’t just one metric. It’s a combination of characteristics related to job competence, socioemotional skills, and team performance.

How to Identify High Potentials

Ideally, a successful high-potential program would begin with psychometric data from the Hogan assessments. A multimodal approach brings personality data into the discussion for individual development. It adds scientific rigor to what has traditionally been a subjective process.

“If you can put the assessment as part of the identification process at the front end, it can be a fantastic way to make sure that you’re not missing something,” Christopher said. Organisations might fail to identify high potentials, especially if they seem quiet. Excellent high potentials can sometimes get passed over because they may not have a strong drive for self-promotion. Organisations might also misidentify high potentials, especially if they seem loud. People who act charismatic can sometimes lack the leadership skills to succeed in strategic roles.

Even if the pool of high potentials is already predetermined or fixed, Hogan assessment data are extremely beneficial. Psychometric data effectively identify gaps that could emerge as high potentials advance along the leadership track. Organisations should identify a targeted, personalised plan to address each high potential’s specific development needs. “The most effective component of the high-potential program is making sure we have a clear plan for what to do next with these individuals and really help them prepare for that destination role,” Christopher added.

Goals and Mistakes of High-Potential Programs

“Leaders are able to adapt through strategic self-awareness to ensure they’re effective,” Christopher said. “We need high potentials to be able to recognise and understand where they might have to flex their natural style to be most successful.”

High potentials who may have low social energy might nevertheless build reputations as connected leaders by going out of their way to be present with their teams, making specific efforts to build cross-departmental relationships, and being mindful about how they solicit and implement feedback. A high-potential program shouldn’t convert everyone into an extravert; instead, it should create awareness of how successful leaders show up in their organisation.

Where high-potential programs go wrong is a lack of long-term focus and direction. Putting too much effort into identification and too little effort into development will not yield a successful outcome. “I encourage clients to think along a three- to five-year horizon for developing high-potential employees,” Christopher said. He also challenged organisations to define a clear, transparent path for a future leader’s advancement to reduce turnover at higher levels of seniority.

How to Develop High-Potential Employees

A good high-potential program is a process, not an event. “At Hogan, we’re in the business of assessing individuals and providing them with insights around who they are, how they lead, and how they can develop. The worst thing you can do is put those insights on the shelf and forget about them,” Christopher said. Personality insights are extremely relevant throughout a person’s entire career—but especially when they are making transitions.

A high-potential program ought to be a long-term development program that continually reinforces the insights that were created through the high-potential identification process. Developing high-potential employees also tends to be successful when peers are encouraged to collaborate. Peer development can help high potentials stop viewing each other as competitors and invest in each other’s progress.

Insights for Coaching High Potentials

Having a certified Hogan coach is essential to help high potentials realise they will likely need to evolve or change. “High potentials think more of the same will produce results,” Christopher said, calling that belief a common mistake. Being conscientious, detail oriented, and hardworking brought high potentials success and recognition to a certain point in their careers. Those skills may not serve them well as successor talent, though. Leaders need to think strategically, learn to delegate, and understand their new scope and scale.

“Strategic self-awareness is absolutely critical for individuals to make that bridge to doing things in a different manner,” Christopher said. High potentials need coaching to help them deconstruct what has worked for them in the past and think differently about how to evolve or change their approach in the future. Leaders who are effective know when to resist their natural tendencies and apply different behavioural strategies to benefit their teams.

Organisations must provide ongoing development for a high-potential program to be effective. “The advice I leave with our audience is there is no one-size-fits-all for high potentials. I fully believe in being mindful of the programs that you create,” Christopher said.

Listen to this conversation in full on episode 101 of The Science of Personality. Never miss an episode by following us anywhere you get podcasts. 


*This article originally appeared on Hogan Assessments.

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