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High performance and high potential are not mutually exclusive. Ideally, you’d like every member of your workforce to fit both categories. However, if you understand the difference, you’ll be more effective in attracting, engaging and retaining individuals with the latent talent to hold successive leadership roles in your organization.

According to a recent American Management Association report, high-potential employees constitute an estimated three to five percent of a company’s talent. And more than half of respondents expressed concern that their current high potentials may not meet their anticipated future business needs.

How can you spot – and nurture and develop – potential as you screen job candidates?

High Potential versus High Performing

You should definitely value and reward employee performance. However, if your goal is to build a robust talent pipeline, performance cannot be the sole point of entry.

  • Profile what constitutes excellence in your key roles. Work with your senior leadership team to paint this succession picture. Then communicate it to managers so they can help identify high-potential team members.
  • High performers regularly exceed expectations. However, they may lack the necessary skills for success at a higher level. High potentials set standards of excellence in their current roles and also model higher leadership tendencies.
  • High potentials can be difficult to identify. High performance is easier to observe and may drown out the less obvious attitudes and behaviors that characterize high-potential candidates. These aptitudes include strong change management and learning capabilities.
  • Codify the attributes that you value in your ideal high-potential candidate. You need this in order to know what to look for during your assessment process. If you focus too heavily on performance, your high performers will be the only ones moving up in the ranks and your high potentials will be more likely to move out.

Assessing for High Potential

The right approach to assessing potential not only increases your probability of hiring the right person, but also enhances the perception of fairness within your organization and reduces turnover.

The UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School has designed a formal, systematic process for identifying and retaining high-potential talent. It includes these steps and considerations:

  • Plan for the future. Understand what your company will need and identify anticipated leadership positions.
  • Outline high-potential criteria. Specify the desired attributes for the organization as a whole and for specific roles in particular.
  • Make your criteria measureable. Use various assessment procedures. These may include a consensus approach whereby your organizational decision makers meet to discuss a candidate’s suitability or a criteria-based approach. The latter applies previously defined criteria to determine what your company is looking for in high-potential candidates.
  • Identify high-potential talent. Once your criteria has been defined and made measureable, candidates can be nominated and selected using standard talent reviews. Screen and assess them based on both this criteria and their performance records.
  • Should you inform employees that they’re high potential? Traditionally, the tendency has been to keep this conclusion under wraps in order to avoid inflated egos and talent poaching. But 58 percent of respondents to a UNC survey said they do tell employees who fit this category. The benefits of this transparency include delivering a powerful signal that the organization values their contributions and believes in them enough to invest in their future.

You’re seeking the optimal candidate combination of high potential and high performance to grow your company and solidify its competitive future. Our BrainWorks recruitment and talent evaluation processes help ensure the provision of exceptional talent who are an ideal match for your organization. Read our related posts or contact us today to learn more.


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