HR Management & Compliance

Q&A: Useful Methods for Identifying High-Potential Employees

Identifying and nurturing high-potential employees are critical for any successful organization to operate. But how? That’s been the question for some time, and truth be told, it’s not always easy.


We recently discussed this tricky topic with expert Darleen DeRosa, PhD and Managing Partner at OnPoint Consulting.

HR Daily Advisor: What mistake do companies often make in identifying high potentials?

DeRosa: A common mistake is not understanding the characteristics of high-potential employees and focusing on people who are high performers despite the fact that they may lack future potential. Only about one in seven high-performing employees is actually a high-potential leader, and there are several qualities that consistently stand out for high potentials.

  • Ability: Although often used interchangeably with productivity, ability refers more to whether the candidate possesses the right competencies to succeed. Work efficiency is important here, as being able to get more done with fewer resources or in less time than others is a good indicator of how well a candidate will manage organizational pressures. Employees who have the ability to take ownership of their work and consistently put in whatever effort is needed are more likely to hold themselves accountable.
  • Aspiration: High-potential employees usually set themselves apart from their peers by aspiring to grow and improve. They may not necessarily be focused on climbing a managerial hierarchy, but they do want to better themselves in some way. In addition to seeking out new learning opportunities and taking on new tasks, high-potential candidates are eager to receive feedback about their performance so they can identify what skills they need to improve.
  • Engagement: Motivation is seldom a problem for high-potential employees. They tend to be highly engaged in their work, with strong enthusiasm for the company and its industry. Their commitment is infectious, and in many cases, they help to inspire other employeesto be more productive and engaged. These qualities are difficult to teach through development programs.
  • A Desire to Lead: Another key behavior is a desire to lead. Leadership carries a degree of risk with it that many people find intimidating, but for others, it is an opportunity to take on greater responsibility and serve as a change agent. These are the candidates who are likely to handle the responsibility of the role and become leaders who inspire their teams. While these leaders don’t necessarily have to possess superior charisma, they should have strong communication skills that make them effective influencers. Qualities like personal integrity and high levels of self-awareness make it possible for them to build the trust necessary to lead effective teams.
  • Motivated for the “Right” Reasons: Many high-potential employees are considered ambitious, but the most successful candidates are driven by a desire to help the organization and their teams meet their goals. They want others to succeed and are not afraid to give credit where it’s due. These leaders build trust and create a safe environment in which employees know their hard work will be recognized and appreciated. Ego-driven candidates who are motivated solely by personal accomplishments very often end up creating hostile, low-trust work environments. Over time, these leaders create work environments driven by low morale, high turnover, and poor collaboration.

By identifying people who have the qualities to potentially become leaders and are motivated to assume leadership roles for the “right” reasons, companies can ensure a healthy future.