The Difference Between High Potentials and High Professionals

Succession meeting

by Cyndi Sax, Vice President, Development Solutions at Talogy

It’s one of the most frequently reported nightmares of HR leaders. A key employee, such as the CEO or head of department leaves, paralysing the organisation that has no planned successor. Without strong leadership, forward movement stalls. The ensuing lack of direction can shake the confidence and morale of employees, as well as the stakeholders they serve.

Recruiting a viable external candidate with the right skills and experiences can take months. Their onboarding and assimilation to the organisation will take even longer. Even then, there are no guarantees that the new leader will be a good fit. Having a pipeline of “ready now” talent to tap into within an organisation can significantly reduce the time to fill a crucial vacancy, reduce costs, and provide business continuity.

With big shoes to fill, it can be difficult to identify high potentials, (often referred to as Hi-Pos), within an organisation. Likely candidates may lack the necessary ambition to take on the role, or their life circumstances may indicate the time is not right for them. High performance is often equated to high potential, but that isn’t always the case. There’s a strong link, but the best performers in a given role aren’t always the best suited for a job on the next level up. Getting the distinction wrong can be a costly mistake.

Early differentiation of Hi-Pos

It’s important to differentiate between “high professionals” and “high potentials” well before your organisation needs to fill a mission-critical, senior position. Many organisations provide additional learning and development or assign high exposure positions and projects to high performing professionals, only to find that when it comes to it, they don’t really want the top job.

So, what is the key to effective succession planning that means you will be well prepared when a key leader decides to leave? To ensure business continuity and achieve a sustainable business model for the future, it’s important to proactively evaluate the talent you have in your organisation. Gain insight into your group leadership profile by identifying individual areas of strength, development priorities and potential risks. Then use these insights to engage, develop and retain key talent in the business.

Five steps to identify Hi-Pos

Taking the following steps will place you in the best possible position to smoothly transition a new leader from within your organisation, when a key person leaves:

Set clear business objectives:  When defining potential in your organisation, align the definition of potential to organisational strategy and long-term goals for the future. For example, if it’s likely that the demand for senior managers will increase in the next few years, defining potential by role makes sense. Alternatively, define by breadth if the strategy is for change, and ensure leaders have a greater skill set so they can lead effectively across functions.

Define leadership profiles: Define what potential means to your organisation and link this to business objectives. What does great look like? What are the behaviours, competencies, and culture-fit your organisation requires from its leaders?

Agility, and the ability to adapt to different situations, is likely to be a key indicator of leadership success. For instance, a person who’s motivated to innovate and is quite comfortable leading transformative initiatives, may need to learn how to also present a steady presence during chaotic times. Establishing these indicators means you can identify people earlier in their careers, before an opening exists, set them on a developmental path to realise their potential, and master new behaviours that may not align to their natural temperament.

Assess high potentials: Determine how leadership potential will be measured as part of the selection process. Personality inventories, ability tests, and leadership skills assessments can measure several key capabilities. For example, emotional intelligence assessments provide useful insights into an individual’s self-awareness and willingness to adapt their behaviour as needed.

Combined with behavioural interviews that delve more deeply into specifics, assessments provide a higher level of detail from which to understand leadership potential. 360 surveys are also a good method for gathering feedback on a wide range of competencies from a broad perspective of stakeholders, providing an overview of strengths and weaknesses, how someone works with others, and fits in with a team.

Conduct aspiration conversations:  Support assessments with conversations that uncover what success looks like to each individual. This will ensure you clearly identify the high potentials who are interested in the realities of holding a leadership position. For example, if geographic relocation is a requirement, it would be important to know how open to moving the individual is before seriously considering them for an open position on the other side of the globe.

Regular check-ins offer an opportunity to discuss whether aspirations have changed. What someone wants from their career in their 20s may be different years or decades later. Family commitments may prevent someone from travelling often, for instance. This works both ways, someone who is a high professional may grow in confidence and be ready for a leadership position at a later date.

Career aspiration conversations also allow you to manage expectations when a high potential is ambitious but not yet ready to step up. They help to build trust and find alternative ways to progress a career, perhaps by allowing someone to work on special projects or stretch assignments, so they continue to learn and build their skillset.

Structured development pathway: All of the above should feed into a tailored development pathway for each high potential individual. These pathways will support people through their career journey and ensure they are well placed to take on key roles when they are needed – with the right competencies, skills and attributes to lead your organisation into the future and shared expectations about the criteria that will be considered along the way.

Great leaders are hard to find

A leadership pipeline is important. An organisation’s culture is driven by its leaders, and effective leadership is associated with multiple positive outcomes – from improved retention and higher employee engagement scores to increased productivity and profitability. However, great leaders are hard to find and even harder to retain, so having a process to best identify future leaders in a sensitive and logical manner is critical.

Very specific rules around career progression may be impossible, given the many considerations and unique pathways forward. However, providing guidelines will help by aligning employee expectations with those of the organisation and identifying career development pathways that allow for a variety of options. HR leaders will increase their value to the organisation by driving key performance indications, including employee engagement, leadership continuity, and career progression options that are attractive to both high potentials and high professionals.

About the author 

Cyndi Sax is Vice President of Development Solutions at Talogy. Cyndi is an adaptable and experienced organisational effectiveness leader with proven business acumen and a 30-year, multi-industry career background. She is committed to aligning business objectives with talent management solutions and brings experience in executive coaching, functional line management, internal and external consulting.

Cyndi has a reputation for driving large-scale organisational initiatives related to change management, employee performance, team and organisational effectiveness. She is an expert in the design and implementation of leadership development programmes, executive coaching, and succession planning.

In her current role, Cyndi leads a team of professionals dedicated to the design and delivery of employee development solutions that span the employee lifecycle, including blended learning programmes, professional coaching, leadership development and assessment, organisational development and tailored learning solutions. Cyndi brings a passion for discovering untapped potential and supporting individuals, teams and organisations to achieve success.