Unlocking Employee Potential: The Path to Organizational Success

At any thriving organization, these are the team members who should stand out: The ones who show constant initiative, demonstrate leadership skills, and make clear their aspiration to move ahead. Their abilities outpace what’s required of their job title. They are driven, though don’t always have an idea of what they’re driving toward. Recognizing and developing the potential of these team members—who should be regarded as high-potential employees—is essential to sustain organizational growth as well as competitiveness. Doing so in a way that’s visible to all employees fosters a proactive culture and workforce, drives innovation, and cultivates future leaders. There is no one key determinant to the future success of a company. However, ensuring that team members who exhibit these characteristics get the support they need is paramount.

Nurturing high-potential employees has been shown to drive business success. Indeed, companies that invest in leadership development programs are more than twice as likely to meet their performance targets, and more than four times as likely to excel at organizational growth, according to data from Brandon Hall Group. The benefits of investing in the potential of high-potential team members are tangible and measurable.

What is Employee Potential?

To be sure, not every organization’s definition of high-potential employees are people who go above and beyond their current roles. These team members exceed the requirements of their job descriptions and make themselves visible in both the quality of the work they produce and the speed at which they work.

High-performing employees are those superstars who have been modeling extraordinary behaviors for a long time. High-potential employees show deep promise but are only beginning to demonstrate that superior level, caliber, and consistency of work.

Characteristics of High-Potential Employees

High-potential employees are hard to miss. These 15 primary characteristics set them apart:

1. Ability. Although everyone has potential, the primary characteristic of high-potential employees is that they’ve already shown an exceptional ability to accomplish what’s asked of them in their current roles.

2. Aspiration. Many employees are motivated to do their jobs well, but high-potential employees have been taking it to the next level. Leaders have asked them what’s working for them and what isn’t—then made their intent clear: Here’s what I want you to do next. And next after that. True high-potential employees have demonstrated they’re excited by new challenges and opportunities.

3. Adaptability. They haven’t just sought out new challenges, they’ve embraced them. They’ve been eager to stretch their capabilities. This willingness to adapt is key for them as they’ve gained more responsibility.

4. Sociable. High-potential employees are comfortable in their current roles, and they’ve embraced opportunities to interface with a new set of bosses and peers. Productive, professional relationships have come easily to them.

5. Leadership Skills. These employees have identified and emulated the best leaders around them, and learned from them how to identify and sell a strategic vision.

6. Self-starter. It’s clear they know which projects to prioritize without constant handholding. They jump on new initiatives, propose them—or both.

7. Competitive. They want to win and want the organization to win. They are willing to push themselves and others to help their team prevail.

8. Aligned. High-potential employees may not always agree with every strategy, but they understand the importance of embracing organizational priorities and values, and don’t openly challenge them.

9. Quality control. Substandard work will not stand. These team members have a high bar and don’t tolerate efforts to lower it.

10. Positivity. Work is demanding—and a negative attitude assuredly makes it harder to achieve outstanding KPIs. High-potential employees radiate a positive attitude of work well done is satisfying and rewarding.

11. Work ethic. High-potential employees prioritize their professional commitments. There is time for breaks, but a rock-solid devotion to getting work done at the highest quality.

12. Trustworthy. Honesty and dependability are vital characteristics for a team or organization to succeed. High-potential employees embody trustworthiness.

13. On schedule. In a global economy, projects can change constantly, and some employees may struggle to keep up the pace and meet deadlines. High-potential employees deliver on time or ahead of schedule.

14. Emotional IQ. It’s a given that the best team members are highly intelligent. But intellectual intelligence is not the same as emotional intelligence. These team members model both, understand the difference, and how these dynamics impact a team’s performance.

15. Flexibility. In most organizations, change is likely a constant. High-potential employees understand that being able to accept evolving priorities and sudden changes easily is a key part of creating valuable work for customers.

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Identifying High-Potential Employees in Your Organization

It’s a given that most everyone has at least some potential. That idea should be a central part of most mission statements.

Yet it would be untrue to say most everyone has high potential. This isn’t a knock on those who don’t. There are plenty of excellent employees in organizations across the planet who do their jobs and do it well. The difference between them and high-potential employees is that this is enough to satisfy their professional ambitions, or their skill sets cannot be greatly expanded.

Pitfalls of Misidentifying High-Potential Employees

Misidentifying team members who have high potential means devoting time and energy to someone who would prefer not to be on the receiving end of that attention. It also means not spending enough time challenging those who truly want to do and can do more. As a result, you’re likely to frustrate the former and alienate the latter. And if there’s one circumstance an organization can’t withstand more than losing customers, it’s trying to replace high-potential employees. The top one-fifth of a company’s workers are responsible for four-fifths of its output, according to a measure reported in the Harvard Business Review.

In addition to the 15 characteristics of high-potential employees above, there are more ways to properly identify them. For example, what feedback has there been from customers? Is there business data, such as high satisfaction ratings or growing sales, that offer proof points? Would colleagues and former managers agree that this team member has excelled? Has your organization used personality and assessment tests to help identify high-potential employees?

These team members aren’t just producing excellent work, they’re doing so at a speed and consistency that stands out. They’re also likely producing these excellent results with minimal direction, or at least a lot less than their peers.

These are the team members so energized by the job, but also so good and efficient at doing it, that they not only have enough time to mentor their peers but choose to do so as well. It’s likely that if you know a high-potential employee, it’s because they’ve looked for different ways to get a promotion—on the one hand to increase their pay but, more importantly, their responsibilities as well. These are people eager for both, and for that reason identifying them may be the easiest part of this urgent responsibility.

Role of Leadership in Developing Your High-Potential Employees

Once you’ve identified a high-potential employee, it’s vital to nurture them in a way that allows them to begin to reach their full potential.

No surprise, it’s more of a challenge than simply observing that they might be willing and able to do more. It requires a level of personalization you likely won’t be able to or choose to grant to every team member.

The Role of Leadership in High-Potential Employee Development

Habit 5 in “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” is Seek First to Understand, Then to Be UnderstoodTM. This is how the superstars in every company are treated already. For those most admired, their leaders are, or should be, checking in at a regular cadence to see how they’re doing and ask what challenges they might seek out next.

High-potential employees need something similar. If you’re expecting extraordinary results, you have to offer an extraordinary level of input, along these lines:

· More personalized mentorship.

· An always-present option of continuous learning such as leadership development or specific coursework.

· Offering a variety of positions, not knowing which one is going to spark their curiosity.

· Access to senior leadership that isn’t available to others at the same level to help them gather advice and lobby, indirectly or not, for higher positions.

It is not merely the job of leadership to identify high-potential employees. It’s also their job to provide an environment that’s conducive to their growth. Not just because of the fear that they might take their talents elsewhere, but because of a sincere interest in helping them make the most of them where they already are.

Retention Strategies for High-Potential Employees

Research by Gartner for HR (formerly CEB, the Corporate Executive Board) shows that 25% of high-potential employees plan to leave their employers within the next year. This represents a failure by leadership for not providing proper management and development programs to retain the talent that, quite literally, will determine the outcome of most organizations.

Retaining high-potential employees isn’t just a matter of not losing your best team members. It’s also a matter of sending the right signals to everyone within an organization. Team members don’t leave their company, they leave their leaders.

High-potential employees aren’t just a little bit better than their peers—by one measure they are nearly 100% better, especially in highly complex leadership roles. It isn’t just that performance like that is hard to replace. (Though it is: An organization can expect to spend more than three times a high-potential employee’s salary to find someone else to do the work.) It’s that there is a cascading effect on organizational morale and performance when top talent regularly heads for the exit.


Identifying, developing, and retaining high potential employees isn’t just a matter of organizational improvement. It’s a matter of survival.

Reflect on what you’ve seen happen within your organization. Anyone paying attention can readily identify those who are doing just enough and those who are doing more. How are those people treated? How are they nurtured? How likely are they to be praised and promoted? Observe that and you may get a glimpse into your organization’s future, for the good and the bad.

Download our leadership guide to learn how to foster employee potential.

This article was made possible by contributions from FranklinCovey Senior Consultant Todd Davis.