Investing in the HiPo’s (High Potentials)

Here’s the why & how to spot them for maximum impact

There is no mistaking that the War For Talent coined from Mckinsey & Company’s 1997 research and publication on the topic, still exists today. HR departments and organisations of all sizes are still facing the tremendous struggle to find enough qualified and skilled people to fill the roles created to support growth, whilst responding to changes in consumer demand. 

Attracting and retaining the right talent
Attracting and retaining the right talent

The skills shortage in the UK for roles is not showing any sign of relenting despite the impact of the Pandemic. Where prior to the events of 2020, a report by Luminate into skills shortages in the UK, took data from the Employer Skills Survey, demonstrating some startling findings that included a third of UK vacancies, 33%, being hard to fill. 

And the key findings into skills shortages doesn’t stop there, with the report including that:

  • 106,000 professional level vacancies are considered hard to fill 
  • 79,000 of the above, are hard to fill directly relating to skills shortages
  • Nurses, Computer Programmers & HR officers are top of graduate vacancy shortage lists 
  • SME’s experience greater challenges with skill shortages than larger employers  
  • Low numbers of applicants with the required skills is cited in being the main reason why vacancies are hard to fill. 

When contemplating the backdrop of challenges organisations are facing with hard to fill roles, coupled with skills shortages, it becomes clear why investing in the talent you already have is essential to the success of your business. 

Superior talent is up to eight times more productive

This strategy is one that builds from within, rather than buying from outside. With the ultimate objective of helping your organisation meet its future needs, without relying on recruiting alone to fill growing gaps.

Why focus on the HiPo’s?

The short answer to this question, is that High Potential and High Performers, often referred to as HiPo’s, form the group of individuals who will make the most significant contribution to your organisation. HiPo’s are renowned for driving productivity, with a research study of 600,000 researchers, entertainers, politicians, and athletes finding that high performers are a staggering 400 per cent more productive than average performers.

The relationship between talent levels and business performance is significant, with this significance extending beyond complex knowledge work, out to semi-skilled and unskilled job roles too. With the latter, the top 1 percent have three times greater productivity and for mid complexity skilled jobs, high performers in this field are 12 times more productive. Suffice to say the impact that high performers can bring to your organisation is significant – To the extent that Mckinsey & Co, report the level of impact seen in HiPo’s performing high-complexity jobs, as unquantifiable.

How do you identify high potentials?

Within your existing team, there will no doubt be those that stand out. For a variety of different reasons high potentials may already form your high performer pool, making them easily identifiable amongst the crowd of wider employees. For Managers and HR alike, these people are often those that are thought of when launching a new project, secondment or promotional opportunity. These people are also often the individuals who when given additional responsibilities, easily step up to the task. 

Download the full report Skills shortages in the UK 2019/20
Download the full report Skills shortages in the UK 2019/20

But whilst High Performers are unquestionably valuable to your organisation, the link that sees them become high potential employees is not always guaranteed. 

Just how you go on to spot a high potential employee can be nuanced to the specific requirements of the person’s role or your organisation. But you will typically see a blend of the following traits on display. 

  • Clearly talented in their existing role 
  • Keen to take on responsibilities beyond their existing role 
  • Collaborative at working with others 
  • Good use of initiative
  • Work well autonomously 
  • Emotionally intelligent 
  • Calm under pressure 
  • Open to feedback 
  • Respected by peers and colleagues
  • On board with the company culture & interested in your organisation’s success

If these are the traits and behaviours you’re spotting amongst your people, then these are the ones to focus on with development and retention strategies – Benefiting both their individual growth, but crucially, your organisation too. 

But when it comes down to your organisation choosing to leverage the benefits of investing in high potentials, it could well benefit by having a more robust strategy for identifying and supporting those who will offer the greatest returns to your organisation. 

Millions of people worldwide have taken the Indicator each year since its first publication in 1962

Many companies choose to use psychometric testing or personality profiling to help them with this process. One of the most popular tests is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator,  which sorts people in response to various thinking styles, such as “introversion/extroversion” and “thinking/feeling”, displayed as part of the personality profiling. And whilst there is some disagreement on how valid this testing is on predicting those that will perform well in managerial or leadership roles, there are significant benefits to adopting some formalised method into your identification process, resulting in consistency and of repeatability amongst your organisation.

What stand out as high potential personality traits?

Before embarking on the use of a personality profiling tool, your organisation will need to be clear on what you’re looking for. As outlined, there are a range of generalised behavioural traits that you can expect to see in high potentials. But what do these look like in terms of personality traits? 

Research completed by Professor Adrian Furnham and Ian MacRae suggest there are six key traits that suggest plausibility about a person’s potential to succeed. These are: 

⚡️ Conscientiousness

Conscientious people commit themselves to plans, and could be described as being delivery focused. What they excel at is being good at overcoming their impulses and thinking about the wisdom of their decisions for the long-term. Conscientiousness ranks second to IQ as being a good indicator of what a person’s life outcomes, including educational success will look like. In the workplace, high conscientiousness is essential for strategic planning. 

⚡️ Adjustment 

Adjustment is another way of looking at how someone reacts to stress. The ability to contend with high levels of stress is a good indicator of that individual also being able to cope with the demands of the organisation and situational factors. With greater demands come much more intensely pressurised situations, more hostile environments, steeper demands, all of which require far greater levels of adjustment. In short, those who possess a capacity for high adjustment are more resilient to stress, which is typically associated with managerial or leadership level roles. 

⚡️ Competitiveness 

Competitiveness is an essential component of the traits you’re looking for in high potential personalities. And whilst there is arguably a fine line between striving for success and achieving it, and causing an unhealthy jealousy in others. At its best however, competitiveness can be powerful in motivating others around them to go the extra mile too.  

Useful or good competitiveness focuses on achieving success for the organisation, and creating a competitive advantage for the individuals teams, departments and the company overall. 

⚡️ Curiosity 

Curiosity is having the desire to learn and explore information, but compared to other mental traits this area has been largely overlooked as being a predictor of high potential capability in the past. Yet the latest research suggests that curiosity could indicate those who have this trait are more creative and flexible, they may also learn more easily as a result of their curiosity, which in turn leads to greater strategic thinking. 

⚡️ Courageous (Risk Approach) 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, those who demonstrate courage and are not adverse to risk, are those who could be higher potential. Having the capacity to handle difficult situations is critical for management and leadership level positions, where taking action for the greater good, is essential and one that may be more challenging with those who are generally less courageous. If you spot this trait in your people, then you could be identifying the foundation for high potential capability.

⚡️ Ambiguity Acceptance 

The way a person approaches uncertain and complex situations is an indicator of their ambiguity acceptance. Conversely, someone who can accept ambiguity, will find it easier to react to changes – which in our modern worlds of work can include everything from  economic climate changes or the introduction of new technology. But in summary, those who are able to accept ambiguity are able to cope with complex, multifaceted problems, with greater ease than those who have low ambiguity acceptance.

You know who your High Potentials are, but how do you measure them?

Once you have identified those who have the high potential, the next step for HR and business managers is measuring them. Sage HR offers a tremendous range of features to help you with your people management, including the measurement, management and support of your high potential employees. In fact many of the Sage HR features not only support you with the essential components of HR management, but also the highly valuable aspects of Talent Management, of which HiPo support is a component of. 

Sage HR - create amazing work-life experiences for you people!
Sage HR – create amazing work-life experiences for you people!

Performance Management is one such way of measuring the successes of your high potentials, which will allow you to utilise reliable and objective methods to track performance. What you’re also looking for, when contemplating how these high potentials will benefit your business is will this person perform well in a senior management role? Do they have the  ability to improve performance within their business sector? And are they demonstrating the drive and determination to move to the top of the career ladder here? 

What you are also looking to do, in order to motivate and retain your high potentials for the benefit of the organisation, is to have clearly structured pathway criteria in place for promotion. This criteria should set out the specifics of key performance indicators and desirable behaviours that are likely to make somebody suitable for promotion. The combination of these measures, enabling your organisation with greater information to use as the basis of continued development.

Bringing it all together

Investing in those who demonstrate the capacity for future greatness is a sure fire strategy to help your organisation tackle the ongoing talent shortages being felt in the workforce today. But by also taking active steps to prime your people, with high potential for future success will impact powerfully for years to come. 

In the continued uncertain times we find ourselves in, identifying those who have the potential for more will also drive down the need to attract leadership talent as you will have primed these future leaders from within.


Sage HR

For companies where people are paramount to success, Sage HR  helps businesses overcome the complexities of managing their people, so they can focus on growing their business.

Written By

Jade Taryn Graham

Jade is the founder & CEO of Inspired a people & talent consultancy working with the most innovative early stage companies worldwide. Founder & CCO of Inspired Talent Media Ltd and contributing writer for Sage HR where Jade writes about people, leadership, work/life balance and change.