The key HiPo question you might forget: Potential for What?

Organizations often struggle with correctly defining the concept of employee potential. Not surprisingly, they also encounter significant challenges assessing their employees to identify who has potential. Assuming we can tame this beast of a problem, after a company identifies its high potentials, the next challenge is to answer the question “Potential for what?”

6th March 2018

Adam Vassar

Companies often make the mistake of confusing performance with potential and focusing too much on leadership potential.  To fully understand the concept of potential, we need to split it into two buckets; General Potential and Specific Potential.

What is General Potential?

General Potential is the degree to which an individual has raw potential in the form of the qualities, abilities, and characteristics required to be successful in broader or different roles in the future.  Cubiks calls these characteristics Bridge, Grasp, Flex, and Reach. General Potential is the foundation upon which Specific Potential is built.

What is Specific Potential?

This concept of Specific Potential is meant to answer the question, “Potential for what?”.  What specific future role is this high potential employee best suited to fulfill?  In what part of the organization will this diamond in the rough fit best, and how can we create the opportunity for them to be polished with the right final touches?  What are his or her development needs related to growing into this future target role?

Whether or not the employee aspires to and has the capability to become a people leader is certainly part of the Specific Potential concept.  However, there are more factors in the mix beyond merely the leadership topic.  Specific Potential is comprised of 3 contextual dimensions.

Functional Skills

The Functional Skills area considers which specific path the employee might pursue and what level they may reach.  Is this person well-suited to become a Sales Director responsible for a large geographical territory and team of account representatives?  Is the best future path for an Engineer to become a Senior Advisor with responsibility for a research area but no actual direct reports?  Does an employee’s potential transcend function such that their journey is likely to the Executive suite?  How many organizational tiers can the person reach and how much role complexity can they handle?  These are important questions to answer when ensuring that people are positioned correctly to reach their full potential.

Career Motivation and Organization Fit

Career Motivation is a seemingly obvious piece of the puzzle that is often overlooked.  For example, we spend so much time determining who has the capability to be a leader that we can fail to ask who actually wants to be a leader.  Leadership and even senior level non-leader roles require sacrifice and significant investment to attain and maintain.  These roles are not for everyone and just because an employee has a high level of general potential and performs effectively, this doesn’t automatically mean they have the requisite aspirations for vertical advancement.  Organizations shouldn’t offer precious development resources to employees that are simply not motivated to take advantage of those opportunities.

At the same time, identifying career aspirations can also create a dialogue to determine if hesitant employees could embrace the challenge of fulfilling a leadership role to harness hidden strengths.  This area of Specific Potential also includes the concept of Organization Fit.  Before investing significant development resources in an individual, we must ensure that the high potential’s values align with the company culture to improve the likelihood that the employee can be retained by the organization.

Practical Factors

Finally, there are Practical Factors that must be considered to determine which specific future roles make the most sense for a high potential employee.  How geographically mobile is the employee within their country?  Are they open to taking on international assignments and learning the nuances of effectively working with colleagues from different cultures?  What specific experiences or rotations does the employee need to collect during their career journey to understand the necessary business context required for more senior roles?  How competitive is a certain area of the business and how many positions are realistically available for the employee to pursue?


It seems simple, so why does it still go wrong?

So you’ve identified employees who have a high level of General Potential. Check!  And you’ve answered the “Potential for what?” question by determining their functional path/level, confirming their career motivations and organization fit, and addressing the critical practical factors for their professional journey.  Check!

Now the really hard work begins: Developing their raw potential so that they can be capable and ready to take on these specific future assignments when the time comes.  There are several critical areas to consider for the successful development of high potentials and just as many pitfalls that can hinder these efforts.

Where’s my coach?

Regardless of their specific path, all high potentials will have a unique combination of strengths and development areas. Step one on the development journey is for the employee to obtain an in-depth understanding of their own personal styles and likely challenges. Unfortunately, even for high potentials, organizations generally lack the financial resources to offer each person their own executive coach to fully explore this.

A more economical solution is to administer personality assessments and 360 surveys to provide development feedback. Yet quite often high potentials struggle to make meaning and identify key takeaways from assessment and survey results reports. Companies can optimize the use of personality and 360 tools by producing reports for employees that use the organization’s own competency language, clearly highlight red flag areas of concern, and recommend simple and actionable development tips and activities that can be inserted into individual development plans.

Been there done that

Companies invest significant sums of money for high potentials to attend development programs.  These employees spend considerable time away from their primary job responsibilities to prepare for and attend these events. Yet all too often there is little post-program, ongoing employee development.

Why does this happen? Part of the problem is that participants feel that the content of the program was too impersonal and not matched to their individual work styles. They are also unable to connect learnings from HiPo programs to their own situations. One remedy is to, rather than treating the personality assessment and 360 survey as a one-and-done, integrate that self-awareness and understanding of work styles into the program activities and ongoing development activities.

Golden child mentality

Once being identified as a HiPo, there’s a chance some employees may feel entitled and perceive this special status as infinite. This issue is amplified when the company does not hold them accountable for achieving their development priorities and completing the programs. There is a clear need for the ongoing evaluation of the potential pool and to ensure that individuals continue to demonstrate that they are a HiPo.  After all, there is an entire population of employees with General Potential waiting to fill those spots.

Adopting the models of General Potential and Specific Potential allows for a proven and easy to understand approach for identifying both raw potential in employees and putting them on the right path to realize that potential. When it comes to potential programs, there is much to consider and it can be overwhelming. The good news is that advancements in people analytics and assessment technology can provide talent management professionals with a simple solution for more efficiently and effectively managing these programs.  More to come on that topic in our next article…

To discover more about Cubiks’ solutions for assessing and developing potential, send an email to, fill in the form below or get in touch with your local team.


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