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Identifying high potentials: what are the risks and rewards?

Now the Olympics are over, the UK is looking towards a more positive future. With the Olympic Legacy being widely discussed, the hope is that the doom and gloom of the past few years is behind us. But for the economy to move forward, organisations are increasingly recognising the need to identify the high potentials who will lead the company to success.

While the rewards of this approach might be easy to identify, there are risks of focusing on these individuals, which need to be considered by HR. The future growth of an organisation is dependent on the quality of its senior leaders. As such, HR departments across the globe are developing their talent pipelines to ensure they have the talent needed to fill these crucial roles.

These high potentials - who display the skills and capability to progress to senior levels of the organisation - will play a major role in feeding this pipeline. Their motivation, drive and behaviours that lead to ongoing delivery of results make them ideal candidates for roles at a higher level. Identifying and developing these individuals is therefore clearly worthwhile.

However, as with any development strategy, it's vital that all possible risks are explored. While there are many positive aspects of identifying high potential staff, there are also risks which need to be considered.


Perhaps the most obvious risk to introducing high potential initiatives is that, following a development programme, this talent might leave the company before taking on the leadership role they're being trained for. Given the increasing focus companies worldwide have on attracting top talent, there are no guarantees they will remain in one organisation.

A possible workaround often suggested for this is simply not informing employees of their high potential status. However, this is perhaps a futile option. Considering these individuals are the best and brightest in the business, they are likely to be fully aware that they are good at what they do. And should they feel they are not progressing, it's highly likely they will look for opportunities elsewhere.

The Changing Nature of Leader Qualities

In this ever changing climate, the risky thing about focusing on a select group of high potentials is that the roles they are striving for will often change over time. Lessons learnt from the financial sector over the past few years have taught us that the profile of future leaders may well look different from those of the past. Predicting ability, capacity and motivation to succeed in roles with as yet unknown requirements makes accurately gauging potential even more challenging.


Even if you are able to determine the requirements of the role, ironically, some of the qualities indicative of high performers can also signal possible performance problems. A common profile of individuals with leadership potential is strong intellect, drive and the ability to overcome obstacles to achieve ambitious goals.

However, these same behaviours can also cause problems when the hard-driving, risk-embracing approach is not balanced with intrapersonal skills - such as self-awareness and control - and interpersonal skills - such as developing and maintaining strong relationships. A balance of these is vital to avoid high potentials derailing, but with so few warning signs to look out for, this can be difficult to identify early on.

Adverse Effects on Other Employees

Implementing high potential schemes can often be controversial. Organisations are at risk of creating an internal class system where staff feel they have been labelled as 'high potential' or 'no potential', causing a negative impact on motivation and team support. If the scheme is perceived to be categorising people in this fashion, employees who are passed over or deprived of progress may even leave. This paradoxically leads to problems with turnover that the high potential scheme is designed to avoid.

Mitigating Risks

As with any other investment, there will always be an element of risk involved and these factors should not deter organisations from identifying and developing these individuals. Making the right decisions about people is difficult and is complicated further as high potential talent is leveraged over an extended period. However, implementing such a scheme provides the opportunity for a win-win outcome for both employers and employees. The former group fulfil business-critical leadership positions, while the latter are rewarded with career progression and development.

At the end of the day, when identifying and developing talent, businesses must remember that employees are not simply commodities. Careful management of this process is vital when you consider careers and an organisation's investment are at stake. Whilst there is no one-size-fits all solution, the secret to balancing these positives and negatives of high potential identification and development is careful management of the risks identified.

Ross McGarrigle (pictured) is a consultant at A&DC