September 11, 2013

How to Identify High-Potential Employees

hand offering the golden key to successSolutions to the global talent war tend to focus around the area of attracting and retaining top talent – and rightly so – but another important way to harness and utilize talent is by identifying high-potential talent from within your existing staff population and developing them for today so they can turn into tomorrow’s leaders. Most of us are familiar with this process, which we know as succession planning. In fact, not only are we familiar with succession planning but research from Korn Ferry tells us that 98 percent of companies believe that a succession plan is important. Despite this great enthusiasm for succession planning, the survey showed that at last count only 35 percent of employers had a CEO succession plan in place, which in many companies leaves a gap between desire and reality.

There is no doubt that this represents a great opportunity for HR and recruitment to step in and fill that gap by providing a framework through which organizations can both identify, develop and deploy high potential talent. In fact, a survey by ERC found that not only do HR put in the succession framework but 44 percent of them are responsible for identifying high-potential talent and 48 percent of HR professionals are responsible for developing high-potential talent.

So, I thought this would be a good opportunity to focus in on the recruiter role within the succession planning processnamely the identification of talentand outline some of the modern thinking and practices relating to the identification of high-potential talent. And you can find this below:

What do high potentials look like?

Before you can begin assessing current employees for high-potential status you need to know what they look like. Some insight into this was provided by the ERC who surveyed employers in the North East Ohio area and found that many organizations were using common characteristics to define high potentials which were, for starters: ambitious, motivated to improve, honest, confident, self assured, willing to fail, creative problem solvers, flexible, analytical, customer-focused, respected by peers and interested in advancement and participating at higher level in the organization. There were more characteristics, but these seemed to be the most pertinent ones.

However, one of the most reliable indicators of whether an employee is a high-potential is thought to be learning agility. Many years of research have now demonstrated that the ability to learn from experience (learning agility) is a key indicator of high potential. The most successful leaders learn fasternot due to higher intelligencebut because they are more learning agile, which means they have more effective learning strategies.

How to assess high potentials


The ERC research shows that most organizations are using the formal appraisal system and career development planning process to identify high potentials. The advantage of this approach is that the information is on hand and can be easily assessed by corporate recruiters/HR who are looking to identify the next batch of future leaders.


Since learning agility has taken on such prominence as a means of assessing future leadership potential there are a range of assessments on the marketplace, which can be used to assess levels of learning agility within a candidate. The Korn Ferry Institute is one of the leading providers of learning agility assessments to organizations.

Stretch Assignments

Having identified your high potentials, HR can work with the business to place these individuals into stretch assignments, which are challenging roles that stretch and challenge the individual forcing them to learn new skills. It is one of the most widely used tools for developing high-potential being used by multinational concerns such as GE, P&G and Pepsico. The beauty of stretch assignments is that they are not just a development tool, they are also a means of identification, or at least confirmation of high-potential status.

This means that HR or recruiters can select early stage, high potentials for managerial stretch assignments and if they succeed in the assignment, their status as a high potential is confirmed; but if they fail, then the high-potential status may be called into question.

Read more in Succession

Kazim Ladimeji is a Chartered Member of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, and has been a practicing HR professional for 14 years. Kazim is the Director of The Career Cafe: a resource for start-ups, small business and job seekers.