Ever since Jack Welch told the world something along the lines of “ … look after the top 10% because they create the magic ..”, every company has put some effort into implementing a “High Potential” or “Top Talent” programme (Pesto effect ?), that attempts to recognize people that are not just top performers and achievers in the company, but also to identify those that have the potential to go further, to do more, maybe even to get to the top.

In most of the “HiPo” programmes that I have seen, this is akin to placing a brand on the forehead of the anointed. It is a title conferred on an individual that he will openly wear and parade brazenly in his work arena. Some companies even go as far as to have the title printed on the individual’s business cards and I have seen one company that handed out a lapel pin to the appointees.

How wrong can you get?

Firstly, as this honour is generally limited to about 2% of the employee population, managers now have to explain to the other 98% that they have lesser or limited or no (?) potential at all compared to the chosen 2%. Not an easy job for any manager, and incredibly de-motivating for those that have worked hard, and who have achieved the goals set for them. Managers must remember that whilst they may have for example 20% Top Performers of which only about 10% may be Hi Potential, there are still another 80% who keep the business going, and merit attention. When managers talk about “talent” it should cover all their people not just the few at the top.

The other issue is that you have now set expectations in this chosen 2% of “wunderkind” that something momentous is now due to happen to them, like an imminent promotion.

I worked with one company that had an employee population of about 60.000 and a manager population of about 6.000. Their employee turnover was relatively low at about 4%, so no more than about 240 managers would depart annually (both voluntary and involuntary). At 2%, HiPos numbered about 1.200, so it doesn’t take a mathematical genius to work out that even if the company was in high growth (which was pretty average for their industry), there were just not going to be enough management jobs opening up to meet these expectations. What was interesting was that the departure rate of HiPos was about treble that of general staff, so the HiPo programme, which had been specifically designed to retain the talent, was actually driving a lot of them away, because of unmet expectations that had been set in the minds of these smart, ambitious people. If you can’t meet these expectations, they will find someone else who can, and they do.

Managers cannot afford to turn the high potentials into a club of the chosen people.

I believe that this will make the programme have as many drawbacks as advantages.

Don’t misunderstand me … I am not saying that programmes that recognise hi potentials should not exist, I am just against their implementation as an exclusive club and the term “High Potential” becoming a title, with all its attendant expectations of what should happen to those branded as being superior.

I have always believed that what a manager should say to those that he does consider of high potential is along the following lines:

“I am delighted with your performance for the following reasons ….. (enunciate them). I believe that you have exhibited potential beyond your current role, and therefore in support of that I, as your manager, will ensure that you have the opportunity for personal development and growth while you are in my team, so that if a more senior/interesting/challenging/rewarding role should become available in the future somewhere in our organisation, you will be better prepared to be able to compete for it.”

No commitments beyond the fact that you as his manager are prepared to spend your own time, effort and energy to help him further his development in whatever direction you jointly decide is needed. This makes his development programme a personal one, jointly owned with his manager, rather than an obligation from the company, and enables the manager to allocate some measurable and challenging tasks/projects that will enable the individual to grow and develop and also to be tested.

As a responsible manager you will ensure that all your direct reports will be going through some training and development during the year anyway, as one of your critical goals is to improve the skills and value of all your people, so no-one has specifically been openly elevated above his peers.

The fact that you believe that you have some individuals in your organisation that merit development and investment beyond the norm can be advised upwards, but without fanfare, without the badges and without the attendant over setting of expectations.

People of high potential are a valuable resource and should be nurtured and developed and given every chance to progress, and Jack was right when he said that they can “ … create the magic …”.

It is just unfortunate that too many companies have rushed into their HiPo programmes, maybe because of the “Pesto Effect” driving HR to be able to tick another box, without any real understanding of their people and the land mines that they have sown for themselves.



  1. leshayman says:

    I just received an email from one “HiPo” who told me that when he was “annointed” he had received a large12-month wall calendar from his company showing a photo of 12 recognisable landmarks from around the world, with his face transposed on the head of the most obvious body in each photo.
    This even beats lapel pins.

    Does anyone else have any weird and wonderful ones to share ?


  2. Pingback: Transforming HR – How a CEO did it « Life, Leadership and Change

  3. Adriana says:

    I have a wonderful one to share: When I was nominated as “HiPo”, I was directly involved in sales. So, together with the high targets came the high expectations as well. I was really glad that in the company I worked, even if in 2008 this status was not a secret, nobody talked about it(now things are different). I was offered the opportunity to hold a two months training program for a SME lending software (don’t remember the provider) for colleagues from the entire country and my boss told me that of I choose to take this chance I would still have to meet my targets. Of course I decided to take the chance and I also managed to meet more than 120% of sales target which brought me an “over expectations” evaluation.

    That was one of my best years and that was the first company where I managed to stay more than 1 year – I stayed 5 and left last year but it still feels as if I didn’t leave…

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