Executive Development Blog

What Exactly is a High-Potential Employee?

Posted by UNC Executive Development on Oct 1, 2015 11:53:43 AM


A high-potential employee is one who has been identified as having the potential, ability, and aspiration to hold successive leadership positions in an organization (Bersin by Deloitte staff, n.d.). Once identified, they are often singled out for focused developmental opportunities designed to prepare them for future leadership positions. High-potential employees constitute the top 3-5 percent of a company’s talent (Nikravan, 2011).


HR and talent management professionals have good reason to identify and develop high-potential employees. Key drivers to do so, according to respondents of the UNC Kenan-Flagler Leadership Survey, include the need to prepare the organization to meet the anticipated increased demand for future leaders (83 percent); to retain key talent (83 percent); and to improve organizational performance (73 percent). Developing high-potential employees also makes it more likely that they will stick around and benefit the organization rather than taking their talent to a competitor.

In an article for Harvard Business Review, authors Doug Ready, Jay Conger, and Linda Hill identified four “X” factors that are common among high-potential employees. High-potential employees, Ready et al contend, are all hardwired with the following traits:

  • A drive to excel
  • A catalytic learning ability (High-potential employees scan and absorb new ideas and have the ability to translate them into productive action.)
  • An enterprising spirit
  • Dynamic sensors (High-potential employees use these sensors to skirt risks. They have an innate feel for timing, the ability to read situations, and a nose for opportunity.)

High-potential employees deliver strong results by building trust, confidence, and therefore credibility among colleagues. They easily master new types of expertise and recognize that behavior counts (Ready et al, 2010).

Identifying high-potential employees is an important step in any succession management or leadership development plan (Azzara, 2007), yet only 9 percent of HR and talent management professionals responding to the AMA Enterprise survey said they had a systematic process in place to identify high-potential employees. The vast majority (86 percent) said that they had a “mostly informal” or “combination of systematic and formal” process to identify high-potential employees. Properly identifying high-potential employees in a formal, systematic fashion can help target individual development plans for this talent pool, and build consistency and credibility across the organization.

To learn more about this topic, be sure to download a free copy of UNC's "Identifying Hight-Potential Talent in the Workplace" white paper.

Click to Download Full White Paper

Looking to develop some of the talent in your workplace? UNC Executive Development offers a broad portfolio of leadership development programs.  Be sure to check out our calendar here to see if any of our programs fits your development needs.