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How to Identify high potential employees?

What do we call a real « High Potential »? How can we identify them and what should we do with them? A “High Potential person” is someone who has the potential skills to lead the development and transformation of a part of the organization. Indeed, the ability to objectively and accurately select and develop the people with a high leadership potential, and keep them on board, is critical for ensuring long-term growth and success of the organization.

Let’s take the example of Company X.

The firm has been booming for several years. After entering UK, Belgium and Spain, the Polish and Nordic markets are the next targets. New investments have been made to open offices in Warsaw and Stockholm. In three years’ time, the company is even looking to expand outside Europe.

Company X hires people every month. The chief technical officer (CTO) -in charge of the software team based in Poland- needs now to identify a new potential manager. Why? To structure the team-work and ensure communication between experts, as well as establishing both trust and motivation.

Sherryl, a software programmer, has been hired in the Warsaw office. She comes from Johannesburg, but has spent most of her teenage years in New York and Paris, following her parents. She studied engineering and mathematics in Syracuse University (NY) as well as in Paris, at ESME-SUDRIA and « Ecole 42 » free code and programming school.

Thanks to her recent great achievements, she’s has now been identified as a high potential talent and will join the Young Talent Program after only 9 months of presence.

For developing this program, Assertive Career Mentoring proceeds to a systematic profiling, concerning all the young recruited individuals.

Over the years we have developed and fine-tuned it, in order to:

  • identify the highest potentials,
  • assess whether they fit within the company’s culture
  • and share enough of the company’s values.

We complete this with a report on their current and potential strengths, limits and blockers, so the firm knows which skills have to be developed specifically besides the common program to all Young Talents.

young business woman picture


First, we measure her EQ (Emotional Quotient) and IQ (Intellectual Quotient). Those are Sherryl‘s two main tools, we have to know if they need sharpening.

Then, we work together to define her values, what kind of culture she prefers and which type of organization she performs the best in. The main idea is to assess if she fits with the company’s culture and and kind of organization. This is a critical item on the long run.

Besides, the program enables us to seek for her deep motivations and ambition for the future to understand what she really desires for her career:  does she really consider staying or would rather prefer seizing outside opportunities? Of course, Company X wishes to keep this top talent in house for at least 3 or 4 years.

Indeed, there is a real need to assess the motivations of the ‘high-potential individuals’. Thus, this program is not ‘just’ a development program. Because cleverly thought and developed programs are not enough.

Two years ago, Katrina went also through the Young Talent Program and was showing as much promise. But after a while she just gave her resignation. She had the drive but her manager only focused on the tasks of her current job. He didn’t give her the opportunities she needed to practice her development. On her side Sherryl has the good fortune to have a manager who is committed to her development.

Executive woman picture


What we have learnt from Katrina’s story:

  1. We must communicate to the participants the company’s expectations so they “own” their development. They must always remember that the company trusts them. This means letting high-potentials know how long they have to complete the program, what tools and resources they can access to further enhance their skill-sets and how to track their overall progress.
  2. We have to make sure managers are involved too in the development process and understand their role: ensure the young talents have opportunities to practice new skills and to check-in their progress, to say the least.
  3. But this is not an issue of individual accountability only. Both parties have to know the future responsibilities of the high-potential might have elsewhere – outside of their current job/department- so the manager is not tempted to keep the person as a ‘personal asset’.

Meeting picture

Company X’s Young Talent Program works smoothly and delivers results and value. Because of its two steps: the profiling and the 3-part contract signed by the high-potential, the manager and the HR. Without them, it would often only lead to frustration for both the organization – investing time and money on the wrong individuals – as well as for the individual -because of unclear goals and no return on efforts made. A story we all heard too often.

If everything goes on track, Sherryl will manage in a first step the software team (architects, designers, systems analysts, engineers, developers i.e. programmers, coders and testers).

Company HQ picture

Company HQ in Warsaw

Then, within 3 years she will lead the Warsaw office -or go to one of the country where Company X wants to open a subsidiary- and set it up from scratch. Challenging enough to give her a very high motivation!

young business woman picture

Sherryl will soon manage the office

If you want to go deeper into “High Potential” topic, you can also read Identifying high potential employees by Greg Newman or this older but still accurate article from the Harvard Business Review Are You a High Potential? from Douglas A. Ready, Jay A. Conger and Linda A. Hill.

Written by Cyril OGEE

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