Kevin C. Ngo, Georgia Kouselas, Nick Carter, & Anthony Ball

Strategic talent management is all about making sure that your organisation has the right people in the right places at the right times. The first step to a successful talent strategy is therefore answering the question of which individuals and groups can meet your organisation’s future needs—that is, who is high potential? People Measures has identified ten things which must be addressed when identifying high potential.

Knowing what high potential is.

Employers generally agree that their organisation’s ability to identify high potential talent would be a source of competitive advantage (Silzer & Church, 2009). However, definitions of what actually constitutes high potential varies in both theory and practice (Silzer & Church, 2009). At the most basic level, high potential in the workplace means the sum of those qualities which groups or individuals need to contribute in a greater capacity (Silzer & Church, 2009). People Measures sees it as the potential to progress and perform effectively in roles of greater complexity, scale and range.

Knowing what high potential isn’t.

Most organisations do not have formal measures of high potential, yet the data says that at best 29% of high performers actually have high potential (CLC, 2005) and some estimates (e.g. Burke, Schmidt, & Griffin, 2014) are lower. Whether it is a managerial rating or a 9-box grid, what we often see are organisations using past and current performance to make predictions about future performance. That may work if an employee is to continue working in the same role, however, someone’s current performance does not provide a complete picture of how that person will perform in a role of greater complexity, ambiguity and scale. The trick is finding out which of your organisations high performers also have potential to go into bigger roles.

Current performance is still a good place to start.

Performance does not equal potential. That said, there is likely to be some overlap between an individual’s current role and her next role. The key to understanding how to use current performance to identify high potential is to figure out where that overlap in capabilities exists and to have good behaviour-based metrics in place to measure those capabilities. That way, you can ensure that you’re putting more weight on those capabilities which are relevant and not unfairly marking people down for their performance in areas which are not important in higher level roles.

Cognitive capacity

People in senior roles are now expected to respond to and exploit increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous business environments. A key requirement of successful leadership is the cognitive capacity to approach dilemmas with both depth and breadth. In other words, leaders must be able to analyse and solve problems, as well as think broadly. Analysing and Problem Solving is a high level of ability in acquiring knowledge, processing information and solving complex problems. Thinking Broadly includes the capacity to understand a situation or problem by understanding the bigger picture. This includes identifying patterns or connections that are not obvious.  Employees with the highest potential have the ability to absorb, process and solve problems with complex data and information. They are also able to successfully identify patterns and relationships across broad systems and issues, even in complex environments. These personal attributes are typically difficult to develop or improve significantly. Having this natural cognitive capacity is one of the foundation factors for functioning in a role of greater complexity, ambiguity and scale.

Social capacity

When one thinks of ineffective leadership, dictatorial styles often come to mind. A common alternative is leadership through incentivisation. However, we know from years of research that neither threats nor rewards build engagement. Rather, effective leadership behaviour build engagement by partnering for success. The key to partnering with others and getting buy-in is understanding, influencing and building relationships with others within and outside the organisation. We call this a person’s social capacity.

Understanding others is an essential capability as it enables the development of strong professional relationships. An awareness of and interest in the issues and experiences of individuals and groups enables the development of a strong and meaningful connection with others. The ability to understand what derives and shapes behaviours also influences successful relationship building. An individual cannot have high potential for a leadership role if they are unable to bring these things together to muster up a team effort to complete complex tasks or realise lofty goals.

Emotional capacity

Potential is not a measure of what is, but what can be. The trajectory of an individual’s development depends on both the external environment as well as the individual’s capacity to grow. High level performance involves not just the leading of others, but also leading oneself. An organisation may offer stretch opportunities, but if the self-awareness is not there, then such efforts would be wasted. A high potential individual has the capacity to understand and manage her/his own emotions and motivations to grow and adapt to leadership roles of increasing ambiguity, breadth and complexity.


The transformation of potential into performance depends on factors which enable an individual to develop and perform in new contexts. One such factor is adaptability. An individual may have the cognitive capacity to evaluate a problem and the social capacity to bring others on the journey, but if they are paralysed in the face of uncertainty, then they are not realising their full potential. Thriving in an environment of increasing ambiguity, breadth and complexity requires the individual to adapt to, embrace and see the positive aspects of change. When faced with ambiguous conditions, high potential employees are able to effectively cope, comfortably shift gears and decide to act without having a complete picture. Adjusting effectively and thriving in constantly changing environments comes naturally to high potential employees.

Achievement orientation

Active willingness to take on challenges, setting high goals and continually improving their own capacity are behaviours exhibited by high potential employees. Individuals high on achievement orientation are also focused on developing themselves to reach the next level in their career.  They have an active interest in acquiring new knowledge and skills, not just when the situation demands it.  Managing their own learning and development is a high priority for these employees and they are open to feedback from others. High potential employees have a natural tendency to respond positively to challenges and demanding situations and have a capacity to deal constructively with difficulties and setbacks while retaining a focus on achieving results.


Having the raw ability and attributes to work effectively at a higher level is one thing, but wanting to work at a higher level is another. An individual must be motivated to progress their career and operate at a high level in order to be considered high potential talent. It is quite simply the case that not all individuals aspire to high levels of career achievement and it does not make sense to invest in people whose priorities lie elsewhere. When devising a high potential program, it is important that there is an opportunity to openly explore individuals’ ambitions, life circumstances and plans to determine whether transitioning to higher level and more complex roles is something to which they genuinely aspire.

Shared commitment/PE fit

When we talk about high potential, we assume that we mean high potential for the organisation. The identification of high potential therefore requires an understanding of person-environment fit (PE fit)—the compatibility between the individual and the characteristics of the work environment (Kristof-Brown. Zimmerman, & Johnson, 2005). PE fit is composed of two types of fit. The first type of PE fit, known as supplementary fit, is the alignment between the organisation and the individual in culture, personality, values, goals, attitudes and norms. Complementary fit, on the other hand, refers to how the organisation and the individual meet each other’s demands in a mutually

Bringing it all together

Having at least ten different things to consider when identifying high potential may seem daunting. However all of these things have been demonstrated to be essential to building and maintaining an effective high potential identification and development program.  By addressing all of these factors and putting effective and rigorous measurement processes in place you can begin to confidently establish an understanding of those employees in your organisation who show the greatest potential to fill and perform highly in roles of greater complexity, ambiguity and scale.



Burke, E., Schmidt, C., & Griffin, M. (2014). Improving the Odds of Success for High-Potential Programs – Talent Report 2014. Alpharetta, GA: CEB SHL Talent Measurement.

Corporate Leadership Council. (2005). Realizing the Full Potential of Rising Talent. Washington, DC: Corporate Executive Board.

Kristof-Brown, A., Zimmerman, R. D., & Johnson, E. C. (2005). Consequences of individual’s fit at work: A meta-analysis of person–job, person–organization, person–group, and person–supervisor fit. Personnel Psychology, 58 (2), 281–342.

Silzer, R., & Church, A. H. (2009). The pearls and perils of identifying potential. Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 2(4), 377–412.