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Transforming High Potential Employees into High Performers

By Sue Wigston on November 8, 2018

Developing and retaining high potential employees is a critical talent management priority for organizations because high potentials can provide a rich internal pool of talent from which you can fill important positions throughout the company. According to research conducted by Corporate Executive Board (CEB), high potentials provide 91 percent more value to an organization than non-high potentials, in large part because they exert 21 percent more effort than others in helping the company achieve its objectives. Given the extraordinary value of high potential employees, identifying and developing them into strong performers can help create a high-performing organization, which also helps to attract and retain top talent.

Are High Potentials and High Performers the Same?

the definition of a high potential employee

High potentials and high performers are not always the same, but first, it’s important to understand what defines each. High potential employees are defined as individuals who possess the skills and abilities for accelerated growth in the organization. They are poised for breakthrough performance and aspire to positions of leadership and expanded influence. In contrast, high performers consistently execute in a manner that exceeds expectations. They can always be relied upon to get things done.

Part of the challenge for many organizations is identifying high potential employees and cracking the code to ensure they develop into high performers. While high performers can be high potential, and vice versa, it is not always the case. Some employees are exceptional performers that have neither the capability nor the aspiration to grow beyond their current role. Alternatively, a high potential is likely to be a high performer because their capabilities enable them to perform at a consistently high level, although not all will have fully attained it.

Prepare your high potentials of today to be your top leaders of tomorrow.

How to Transform High Potentials into High Performers

There’s more to transforming high potentials into high performers than just calling them high potentials and putting them into a development program. One study found that 55 percent drop out of their company’s high potential program within five years, suggesting that companies need to take deliberate action to develop and engage these individuals along the way to retain them. Here are some suggestions for how you can retain high potential employees and prime them for sustainable high performance:


High potential employees have a unique combination of skills and behaviors that demonstrate they have what it takes to have a broader impact on the organization long-term. In fact, it’s easier to identify high potentials when focusing on observable behaviors and approaches to their work that distinguish them from others. Some of the traits and characteristics of high potential employees include:

  • Strategic thinking – They see the bigger picture and show signs of adding value beyond their current role.
  • Work habits – They are driven by a strong work ethic, are eager to take on more, and accept accountability for the outcomes of their work.
  • Judgment – They consider multiple inputs to make reasoned decisions, often seeming “wise beyond their years.”


High potential employees, especially those who are in the earlier stages of their career, can benefit from learning new skills and knowledge that can harness their potential and translate it into sustainable high performance. Leadership development, in particular, can help prepare high potentials for expanded responsibilities as they move from emerging leadership roles into executive leadership. Skills development training can also help to accelerate their capabilities in areas such as teamwork, communication, and project management.

Since high potentials are often interested in a new challenge, another way to develop them is to provide new challenges regularly, either in the form of projects, stretch assignments, or expanded opportunities to lead others. In addition, promoting high potentials into new roles provides them with regular opportunities to demonstrate high performance at graduating levels of difficulty.


High potential employees are often committed to their work, but their engagement can’t be taken for granted and must be nurtured. A great way to engage high potentials and transform them into high performers is through mentoring and coaching. Senior leaders and high performers throughout the organization can play a valuable role in guiding high potentials and showing them how to maximize their value in a variety of situations. Through real-time coaching and long-term mentoring relationships, high potentials can “learn the ropes” from others in the organization who understand, demonstrate, and explain the defining features of high performance.

Conclusion: High Potential Employees Are Vital

High potentials are an essential requirement for a high-performing culture and organization. They ensure a healthy leadership pipeline and are critical for company growth and innovation. Once you engage in specific activities to identify, develop, and engage high potentials, as well as create a successful HiPo program, high performance is a natural outcome.

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As Chief Operating Officer, Sue's extensive senior leadership experience and facilitation skills have established her as a trusted partner and organizational development expert. She has a proven track record of successfully leading culture transformation in Fortune 500 companies and has established herself as an authority on training and development. Sue has over 20 years of experience in the creation and delivery of programs and custom designed solutions for Eagle's Flight.

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Founded in 1988, Eagle's Flight has earned its reputation as a global leader in the development and delivery of business-relevant, experiential learning programs that achieve specific training objectives and lasting behavior changes.

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