• Managing High Potential (HiPo) Employees and the Potential Dangers of Over Promoting

Managing High Potential (HiPo) Employees and the Potential Dangers of Over Promoting

07 September 2017

By Stefan van Eeden, Senior Manager, BDO HR Advisory Services

With HiPo’s and talent being some of the buzzwords in industry right now, HR professionals and decision makers in businesses seem to have a common understanding of their importance in the war for talent. But the question is what makes one HiPo better than another, and when is a HiPo ready to be promoted to the next level.

What is a HiPo:

An Individual with the ability, ambition and commitment to be successful in a more senior and critical position.

To understand this, we must first look at those aspects which make up a HiPo, those being ability, ambition and commitment:


This is a construct that we can measure. Ability refers to the inherent personality, traits and behaviour which enable one to operate on a more senior and critical environment. Their personality (and Emotional Intelligence) is analysed and feedback is provided in order for the employee to understand themselves as well as possible, and also for the organisation to manage the employees as well as possible. Further to personality, cognitive ability may also play a big role. In order to operate on a higher level, they need to proof that they are able to deal with the complexities of the working environment and critically analyse information. Psychometric assessments are often used to determine the various ability requirements.


Ambition is often linked to the employee’s personality, but covers their desire to succeed and their end goal. Often graduates starting in their career all indicate that they want to become CEO. This is not ambition, but rather their perception of what is important for their career. Ambition is the realistic goal of reaching the highest level within their field of expertise, and working towards this goal by setting small targets and goals and being successful with them. They need a clear understanding of their future-role and what they need to do to get there.


This is often dependent on the company as much as it is on the employee. Based on their engagement with the company, and how much they believe they form part of the company’s future, they may be able to tick this box.

Understanding this, how then do we determine when a HiPo is ready to be promoted to the next level?

HiPo + Experience + Time = Business Leader

  • HiPo = commitment + ability + ambition
  • Experience = experience specific to functional area
  • Time = time spent in organisation and developing potential
  • Business Leader = leader in their functional area or in general management

HR professionals and decision makers are hearing this more and more, that their business is full of talent, one just needs the necessary ingredients to bring it out. This applies to all functional business areas – HR, Finance, IT and Business Operations. Experience in a single field will lead to a business leader in the same field.

Potential dangers of over promoting

The problem is that Talent or High Potentials are just that – potential. And if this potential you have in your business is not developed and prepared for future roles, it will go down as another person with great potential but that did not reach the top.

With the potential to grow and to become part of the core business and management team, comes certain expectations. This person should be able to stand their ground in Exco meetings, this person should be able to effectively and efficiently manage their teams, this person should be able to improve market share and profitability, the list can go on.

HiPo employees can become successful in all the above mentioned criteria. For this to happen they require guidance in the right skills, experience and see an example of excellent leadership. The catalyst to move from HiPo to the next phase is adequate time and experience, and there’s no shortcut through this.

HiPo employees are like sponges – they absorb all the knowledge and skills of people that they are working with, or their mentors. This increases the importance of having the right mentors and people guiding and developing these employees.

Why are HiPo’s not coming through the ranks?

South Africa, and the world, faces a massive skills shortage and gap. Too many Organisations act in a crisis mode and focus on external hires to fill the gaps when an employee leaves, and inadvertently end up paying a premium for the skills required. As focused on developing HiPo’s as companies may want to be, and as much as companies say they want to develop from within, we see too many companies where there is limited internal development or HiPo employees coming through the ranks.

With limited opportunities for internal development, HiPo employee gets frustrated and look at opportunities outside of their current environment. Those HiPo’s who are able to invest in themselves through further studies and management development programs do so, and more and more we are seeing these individuals disengage with the organisation and the psychological contract.

The greatest problem currently is that the demand for HiPo employees exceeds the supply of HiPo employees, and that businesses fail to fill the gap by offering more experience and time in their roles.

So what is really happening?

Businesses are not always willing or able to pay more for the required skills. Businesses can attempt to take a shortcut by promoting employees who display the core characteristics of ability, ambition and commitment. These employees are seen as HiPo, and are placed in more senior and critical roles. Often this happens to them before they are ready.

The business case for this shortcut is simple – you promote from within, save on the salaries (bringing senior people over is increasingly expensive) and show current employees that there are opportunities within the business which may lead to a higher engagement.

The problem remains that people with excellent potential are being placed in a role where they are not yet prepared and ready for the accompanying responsibilities. This has a negative impact on business optimisation and can destroy the employee’s self-belief and often leave a mark on their careers. The employees are being set up for failure.

What can we do?

There is unfortunately not a quick fix solution to better developing HiPo employees and filling the scarce skills void that exists globally. Two possible options are:

  1. Implementation of proper succession management and HiPo management programs in the organisation. HiPo’s need to know where they stand, understand their Individual Development Plans (IDP’s), and have regular meetings and sessions with assigned work mentors. The process need to be managed by the employee and business leadership, and be overseen by HR to ensure that all the requirements in terms of skills development and qualifications are met. This can be streamlined through more in-house management development programs and for more employees to attend these. This will be motivation for employees to stay in the company, and also prepare them internally for such roles.
  2. Businesses and organisations can stand together to develop programs or courses which will develop and empower younger people to learn these skills. The focus will be on a more theoretical foundation, but it will leave such students with greater insight into the world of work and expectations that they need to meet if they want to succeed in the corporate world. This requires cooperation of many role players and industries and will be difficult to implement. Seeing that the shortage exists already, it may be impractical.

From the options provided it’s not difficult to see that the only true solution is an improved internal development program with closer monitoring.

HiPo’s will make mistakes, and they will learn from these mistakes, and they will progress in their careers and reach the heights expected from them. It is our responsibility to create environments for them to learn through their mistakes and not to push them into situations where they are set up for failure.

We need to remember that every CEO once was a young employee with the ability, ambition and commitment to make a success.

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