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5 min read

High-potential employee program: What HiPo employees really want

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The popularity of high-potential employee programs, often referred to as HiPo employee programs, continues to rise and there’s a strong case as to why. They are designed to address a top company challenge: cultivating promising leaders. According to a recent study, 82% of senior leaders agreed and actually pinpointed developing future leaders as the most pressing challenge their organization faces. 

As a people leader, you also recognize that HiPo employees are critically important to business growth and expansion. To engage and retain HiPo employees, many leading organizations introduce learning and development (L&D) programs that aim to support these specific team members. 

Let’s talk about how you can make your HiPo employee program reach its highest potential too – from ways to identify HiPo talent, to expert tips on how to create a new program or upcycle an existing one.


What is a high-potential employee?

High-potential employees (HiPos) are those among your workforce who demonstrate a positive trajectory in their performance and a high propensity for learning and growth within a current role, as well as the potential to fill an expanded role. 

Not to be confused with “high-performing” employees, HiPos are distinct in that they also embody “high potential,” one’s ability to take on a greater scope of responsibilities, or assume the tasks and critical operations associated with leadership. They each may excel within their roles, but it’s important to emphasize, HiPos exhibit managerial competencies which may not be shared by all of your top employees. 

For example, an excellent marketer that consistently exceeds expectations won’t always qualify as a HiPo for marketing leadership. However, an excellent marketer who exhibits leadership qualities, such as aligning their work with company culture and helping their colleagues do the same, may be considered a HiPo employee. 


Criteria for identifying HiPos internally within your organization

Identifying those HiPos that already work for you is simple if you know what to look for. You can determine who the HiPos in your company are based on these criteria:

  • They are invested in the success and performance of the team, rather than just individual success.
  • They are innovative, agile learners that integrate new information and procedures seamlessly into their work.
  • They want to develop their skills and are invested in both their personal professional growth as well as the growth of the organization.
  • They understand how their role affects their colleagues, their department and the company as a whole.
  • They are competent and exhibit expertise within their role but accept feedback gracefully and strive for excellence.



Criteria for identifying HiPos from your job candidate pool

HiPo candidates for new hires should share many of the same qualities as your existing HiPo employees. Ways you can make this assessment is through interviews and by looking at their work history. 

Here are some questions and considerations to weave into your hiring process:

  • Has the candidate exhibited growth potential in previous roles?
  • Does the candidate have an understanding of what’s needed to achieve an elevated role from one’s current position?
  • Does the candidate understand and value the company culture?
  • Where else in the candidate’s life and work history reflects leadership experience or leadership potential?
  • Is the candidate invested in the success of the team, and not just individual development?


Best practices for an effective high-potential employee program

To better serve your high potential employees, it’s critical that you differentiate your HiPo program from your more general L&D initiatives. All of your employees should have access to educational resources and development programs, but your HiPo efforts will be focused specifically on developing and advancing those in your workforce with a propensity for leadership.

Here are a few best practices you can engage to help your HiPos grow to their fullest potential:


Align high-potential employee development with strategic priorities

Your overall business objectives will ultimately guide where you want to place your HiPos and how they get there. The growth of the company determines the need for and availability of leadership positions, and your HiPo development needs to be strategized to support business acceleration. To do this successfully, it’s critical to make sure that you have support and buy-in for your HiPo program at the C-staff level. 

Preparing your HiPos for leadership roles before they are officially created also allows you to plan for the future and quickly fill open positions as they become available. This similarly allows you to continuously populate your leadership pipeline with HiPo candidates.


Selecting candidates for your HiPo program is a group effort

Make sure your hiring managers and other departmental leaders are familiar with the criteria we mentioned earlier. Part of their job responsibilities is to keep an eye out for HiPos and make recommendations for their advancement and development. 

Regular check-ins with direct reports are typically the best time to give feedback, discuss goal-setting, appraise performance and evaluate growth potential. Once high potential has been determined, your managers can nominate their direct reports to the HiPo development program.

Your employees should also be able to advocate for their own admission into HiPo programs. Managerial nominations can sometimes overlook possible candidates due to unconscious biases or other factors. Team members should feel empowered and encouraged to nominate themselves.


Leverage education and on-the-job training to develop HiPo employees

An effective HiPo program should help build both theoretical knowledge and hands-on expertise. This involves a combination of practical, on-the-job training and formal learning opportunities such as workforce education. Some companies may already have a workforce education program (i.e. tuition assistance or tuition reimbursement) or others may not have one at all. 

Either way, education needs to be considered when developing a HiPo employee development initiative. Consider taking a strategic approach to workforce education, where you have the ability to develop custom learning paths that prepare HiPos and put them on the path to leadership positions  –  allowing them to develop skills and earn credentials that equip them for that next level. This approach to education also accounts for the differing levels of experience and educational backgrounds that your employees have. 


Provide HiPo employees with tangible career outcomes and recognition

HiPos want to see palpable results from their training and education — they need to know that their time and effort is going to be worth the result. To retain high-potential employees in your program as well as in your company overall, it’s critical to reward your HiPos with recognition, advancement or a similar outcome that acknowledges their growth and achievements.

Furthermore, your HiPo program should include career pathing and direct mentorships to create a plan that your HiPos can follow towards their own development goals, as well as the greater objectives of the organization.


Give your HiPo employees what they want

One quality shared by most HiPo employees is the desire to learn. Your HiPo program needs to support this desire by providing tangible and effective educational resources that equip HiPo’s with the expertise they need to keep growing.

Get started today: Take this 5-question assessment and easily find out how to develop a workforce education program that delivers what HiPos want and need.