How to Identify High Potentials in Your Organization

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Author: Karima Mariama-Arthur, Esq. | Source: HCI | Published: June 16, 2016
high potentials

Companies that thrive in today’s competitive global economy do so for several major reasons, one of which is having the right people behind them. But not just any people— we’re talking high potential talent.

Although the term has surfaced in high level conversations describing the ideal talent pipeline, it’s rarely understood in context, and worse, often confused with high performers. The difference between the two is that “while the latter may enjoy their work and even perform it well, they may lack the aspiration and or quite possibility, the ability to effectively assume a leadership role,” a point of contrast that I’ve often discussed with clients and colleagues alike.

Talent management firms strive to define high potentials with precision to avoid this inherent confusion.

“High-potential (HIPO) employees are critical to [an] organization’s current and future success. They are the key players you want to identify and develop to power your organization,” notes CEB, a best practice insight and technology company that equips leaders with the intelligence to effectively manage talent,  customers and operations.

In addition, Bersin by Deloitte, a research-based human capital firm and division of Deloitte Consulting, LLP, defines a high potential employee as someone "having the potential, ability and aspiration for successive leadership within a company."

Not sure if you’ve got high potential talent tucked away in your organization? Here are six critical traits that distinguish them from the average employee.

  1. They stake a bold claim to leadership. High potentials make no bones about their plans for leadership succession. They are bold, driven and will effectively map out a strategy designed to take them all the way to the top. But don’t dismiss their unequivocal nature as arrogance. Better to capitalize on their no-nonsense approach and invite them to explore the possibilities a bit further.
  2. They aren’t afraid to stand on principle, even if it means standing alone. High potentials readily embrace the courage of their convictions, even when it’s  uncomfortable and especially in the face of adversity. What they know for sure is that good decision-making is often born of clear opposition. Because of that, they are willing to make sacrifices that matter. Sure, they may not be popular. In fact, a protracted battle of wills could potentially wreck havoc on their social cache. No matter.  The bottom line? They are willing to take the road less traveled. Integrity is certainly a critical hallmark of good leadership.
  3. They are smart and innovative. While aptitude and technical expertise are important aspects of overall competent performance, agile leadership also hinges on the ability to successfully innovate. Leadership is a forward thinking principle and requires a person to think outside the box, not merely execute according to institutional practices. High potentials understand this dichotomy. They raise the bar on self-competence, embrace lifelong learning and reach for next practices to achieve the best results.
  4. They ask for help. Blind Spots exist for everyone and high potentials are no different. What really distinguishes them from the pack, however, is their willingness to ask for help when in unfamiliar territory. Surrendering their ego is simply par for the course. They would  rather focus on learning and expanding their reach. They are  proactive about self-improvement and may even make requests for professional development outside of what’s already in cue.
  5. They are team players and play to win. Are competition and collaboration mutually exclusive? Not necessarily. High potentials see competition as a healthy expression of drive, which is complemented by collaboration with others to move the organization forward. They see the big picture, which includes each person putting some ‘win-win skin’ in the game to drive the best result. They view these concepts holistically and consider them complementary, rather than adversarial.
  6. They are self-motivated and go the extra mile. Intrinsic motivation drives results for high potentials. They are their own best barometers and prioritize self-reliance over external agents to catalyze outcomes. When push comes to shove, they reach for true grit and find ways to raise the bar on personal and professional achievement. They don’t merely do what’s necessary, they go the extra mile as evidenced by their stellar work ethic and extraordinary commitment to excellence.

If you’ve got high potentials in your organization, don’t let them slip through the cracks. Know what to look for and more importantly, make sure that you harness their leadership potential in your strategic talent pipeline.

To your success!


Karima Mariama-Arthur, Esq.
Founder and CEO, WordSmithRapport

Karima Mariama-Arthur is founder and CEO of WordSmithRapport (, a boutique consulting firm located in Washington, D.C., which specializes in delivering professional development services worldwide. As an expert facilitator, executive communications consultant, and strategic leadership adviser, she consults individuals and organizations on the dynamics of complex communication and high-performance leadership competence.

Karima is a TEDx Speaker, Corporate Speaker, certified by the International Association of Corporate Speakers, a Professional Member of the National Speakers Association, an esteemed graduate of the Bill Gove Executive Speech Workshop, and a Distinguished Toastmaster (DTM), United States Senate.