Are your HiPos really HiPos?

Are your HiPos really HiPos?

29.03.2018 By adam.vassar

The long-term success of every organization depends on identifying high potential (HiPo) employees and developing their skills so they can continue playing a vital role in the organization for years to come. Top organizations spend thousands per HiPo employee annually through training, coaching, and engagement programs. But is this spend really worthwhile?

By Adam Vassar and Breanne Harris, Cubiks USA

If your definition of employee potential = leadership potential, you may be doing it wrong…

Investing in this top talent pool should result in 2X the revenue and profit (CEB, 2014), but the reality is that 73% of high potential programs fail to achieve expected results. If those numbers don’t seem to add up, you’re right! The problem with most HiPo programs has nothing to do with the development strategy or execution. According to Harvard Business Review, over 40% of individuals in HiPo programs may not belong there.

Performance vs Potential

The mistake begins when a high performing employee is mistaken for a High Potential. We build performance metrics and evaluations into daily activities so it’s no surprise we are biased towards (if not blinded by) performance. And while performance and potential are not mutually exclusive, it is crucial to define potential first in order to identify it accurately.

High performing talent possesses the various knowledge, skills, abilities, and other characteristics that are critical to effective performance for a specific role at the present. Whereas a High Potential possesses the combination of qualities, abilities, and characteristics required to be successful in broader or different roles in the future. At its core, when assessing potential we’re asking if the person has the General Potential to grow and develop whether that future role is a vertical or horizontal move.

General Potential vs Leadership Potential

While over 90% of HiPo programs focus on developing leadership potential, they fail to develop, nurture, and harness General Potential (Forbes, 2016). Skipping past General Potential and focusing largely on leadership is short-sighted and can have costly repercussions.

First, individuals with political savvy, confidence and charisma will be over-represented. These individuals are adept at maneuvering themselves toward leadership positions because of their executive presence but may lack the qualities, abilities, and characteristics of a true High Potential. Second, early career ‘diamonds in the rough’ will be overlooked.

When NFL General Managers are evaluating players for the draft, they don’t begin their talent review by watching how graduating seniors perform at the NFL combine. These GMs employ a team of scouts that are identifying players’ talent from the first game of their freshman year. In a similar manner, if organizations are not evaluating the General Potential of their employees in the early career phase, they’re not creating a sustainable or fully formed pipeline of potential.

Finally, narrowing the scope of the potential program to leadership-only fosters a polarizing ‘Haves vs Have Nots’ culture. Individuals with strong General Potential but no interest in Leadership will feel excluded despite their value and significant contributions. They may feel they have no opportunity to unlock the wealth of HiPo program resources because the organization is biased towards investing in leaders.

To compound an already difficult task, when evaluating employees that are currently individual contributors to determine their future leadership potential, decision makers have very little relevant data available to them. They are forced to look into the crystal ball and identify employees with “future potential” by analyzing present talent performance criteria. It’s an apples to oranges comparison and a real dilemma. As a result, faux HiPos with executive presence make their way to the top of the list.

Even more concerning, is the impact on diversity as leaders fall victim to unconscious bias and select people based on the “Similar to Me” principle. In the end, it’s no surprise 55% of high potentials leave the program; they weren’t meant to be there in the first place.

Assessing General Potential

Without an objective foundation, any attempt at identifying High Potentials will be a guess at best. Academically, there is consensus when it comes to what is core for any assessment of General Potential. This consensus is built around four important areas that are proven to be indicative of high development potential. In “The Pearls and Perils of Identifying Potential” Silzer and Church identified four key fundamental areas that must be assessed when identifying potential; cognitive skills, personality, learning and motivation (2009).

The research tells us what to assess, but to accurately identify potential, we need both a scientific model of potential and a way to measure each element. The Cubiks Model of Potential is simple, yet robust. It brings together the crucial qualities and attributes that indicate potential and delivers insights that help top talent grow and thrive.

The Cubiks Model of Potential

The Cubiks experts have developed a model of potential split into four key dimensions of General Potential, divided into two categories. The first is the Foundational Category which includes the innate dimensions Bridge and Grasp. The Bridge dimension relates to the individual’s interpersonal attributes and personality. This dimension evaluates how an individual “builds the bridge” for relationships with others while creating meaningful connections and managing their emotions.  Grasp refers to the individual’s reasoning ability and how they create meaning out of and “grasp” complex and ambiguous information. Strategic thinking and intellectual curiosity also play a vital role in this dimension.

The Foundational dimensions above tell us a lot about an employee’s raw potential, however, we must also consider the Growth dimensions to understand if that individual has the mindset to adapt and the aspirations to advance. The dimensions included in the Growth category (Flex and Reach) are evolutionary in nature. The Flex dimension evaluates the ability for the individual to “flex” in new situations by adapting to change, being eager to learn, and thinking creatively. Finally, Reach evaluates the individual’s inner drive for success.  Will they “reach” for ambitious goals, persevere, and stretch themselves in spite of challenges and adversity?

The Big Picture

Not everyone gets to be a HiPo or receive substantial investment from their organization in their career growth and development.  However, by including a General Potential component in your potential identification strategy, you can be much better positioned to successfully:

  • Discover the hidden gems in your employee population early in their career.  This is accomplished by administering online assessments that measure the dimensions described above.  Assuming that the assessments are reasonable in terms of both their cost and administration time, organizations can broaden the scope of the General Potential phase of their program to reach every employee that is interested.
  • Improve employee perceptions of inclusion and fairness.  By assessing every employee that is interested and sharing a development feedback report with them, this is a relatively small gesture that can have a significant impact for giving all employees an opportunity to shine and useful information to support their personal growth and career journey.
  • Add objectivity to the process of identifying potential.  The use of an assessment with solid science at its core can increase the hit rate of potential identification decisions much like a credit score increases the accuracy of bank loan offers.  This is not meant to fully automate the process or replace the use of supervisor insights or performance data.  Rather the best practice approach is to use the objective assessment data to supplement the good information that organizations already collect.  Overall this powerful combination of data allows for a more robust, comprehensive recipe for predicting potential.


Of course, this is only half of the journey.  Once we identify employees with General Potential we must then answer the next question: Potential for what?  We will dive into what we mean by “Specific Potential” in our next blog.