The High Potential Program Trap: are they motivating your best people to leave?

Written by Alistair Gordon, 11 Jul 2020

Getting the RIGHT high potential leaders on your development programs.

Organisations invest in high potential programs to build a pipeline of future leaders from their best performing individual contributors; or to retain their best talent, and keep them away from rivals.


The value of high potentials is irrefutable - Harvard Business Review reported some years ago that many high potential employees are disengaged and ready to leave, citing Corporate Executive Board research. Have things really changed? And are the high potential programs we design contributing to the regretted churn many organisations are experiencing?

The CEB research confirmed that Hi-Pos are 91% more valuable than the majority cohort. But the CEB also found that 73% of high potential programs are not delivering to business objectives or ROI, and 69% do not build a strong succession pipeline.

The reason for the last statistic, and it’s very scary, is because, after being on your high potential program, a proportion of your Hi-Pos leave the organisation. For L&D teams, this isn’t a good look, and senior executives call into question the value of the programs. We’ve heard one CFO say: “We appear to be training the high potentials of our competitors.”

Doing Three Things Right and Avoiding Doing Three Things Wrong

Having delivered high potential programs across a range of industries for the past 25 years, HFL has identified the success factors to be leveraged and the common pitfalls to be avoided.

The set up of your Hi-Po program – well before you consider a content plan and a great facilitator – is where you build in success. Through effective design and implementation, you can get it right:

1. Defining criteria

Getting it wrong: Poorly defined criteria for and assessment of high potential = selecting the wrong people for the program.

Getting it right: Everyone – senior leaders, managers and participants - understands what high potential means and looks like.

Defining what ‘potential’ means - specific to your organisation - is critical to delivering on the aims of the investment. Without proper briefing or a solid talent review process, most managers tend to assume high performance equals high potential.

Hi-Po programs are best introduced after you’ve spent time precisely defining high potential and then assessing and calibrating that talent with managers. According to CEB, almost half of the companies surveyed did not have a systematic approach for identifying high potential, and only 1 in 3 had a rigorous method of assessment.

Where these definitions of potential have not been defined and calibrated, subjective measures and nomination processes rule the roost. Managers are able to serve their own ends - by “sending Jane on a high potential program” - without consideration of the organisation’s goals for the development investment. The wrong people being on the program wreaks havoc with ROI measures and learning outcomes.

2. Objective testing

Getting it wrong: Letting subjective opinions and other evils dominate the nomination process.

Getting it right: Testing for aspiration, ability and engagement.

Getting it wrong here allows subjectivity to enter the equation. Managers tend to nominate those who shout loudest about wanting development. This is a poor guide as some of the fastest developing people we see on our Hi-Po programs initially doubt their selection for the problem - their humility is their strength. Another favourite subjective factor is that the manager describes their participant “is just like me”. But the most fraught with danger is letting the manager alone make selections.

The nomination process needs to be tough. A proper nomination form, with the strong criteria in place, must be submitted. We insist on a 2 minute video (use your phone!) to explain to the selection panel (another thing we insist upon) why each nominee is worth the investment. This allows your HR or OD professionals to challenge and ask for more detail on why specific participants have been selected. And, no matter how much individual managers resist, push for a double nomination requirement by the manager and one other senior person.

We also encourage organisations to adopt CEO picks – participants who HR believe fit the criteria are nominated by HR in the guise of the CEO. This frees participants who may be stuck under non-complying managers.

And for those who are nominated but don’t make the program, we know there’s long term benefit in HR enabling managers to sit down and explain why to their reports. This conversation should focus on how the participant can get on next year’s program, and what the manager can do to support those efforts. A good development plan is developed and executed regardless of whether or not the participant is on the program.

The next process is to assess for potential. A simple approach is to focus on the three criteria of Aspiration, Engagement and Ability by asking:

  • Do they desire to progress into a larger role? (Aspiration) Are they committed to the organisation and likely to stay? (Engagement)

  • Do they have the cognitive and emotional smarts to take on a more challenging role with higher levels of complexity and responsibility? (Ability)

  • Do they have the learning agility to move up 2 levels in the next 5 years? (Ability)

Nominations for Hi-Po programs must be driven by data if your organisation is to get the ROI it’s been promised. If you don’t yet have that information set, the first cut will be based on performance data. Consistently high performance means they may have the potential to step up twice - as a people leader or individual subject matter expert. Two steps up in quick succession is a reasonably good definition of high potential.

3. Securing manager buy-in

Getting it wrong: Allowing managers to abrogate their responsibility.

Getting it right: Building manager support and commitment for Hi-Po program participants.

Success starts with securing the commitment of not only participant managers but also the open endorsement of more senior people – the higher, the better. The call for nominations should come from the senior leader to the managers of participants, with clear criteria. But, to fulfill the potential of the program, the managers must understand the responsibilities they have to support their participants. HFL Managers’ Guide and pre-program briefings deliver the required step by step information. A word of warning: those mangers that are “too busy” to attend the telephone briefings are the ones we encourage our clients to talk to individually, because they will most likely be the problem managers.

But have you now motivated your Hi-Pos to leave?

High potential programs have a high potential to develop and retain your best talent. But handled wrongly, they can also have the high potential to indicate to your best talent that while the program was great, the organisation – and perhaps in particular their direct manager – is not in a position to reward their professional growth.

Remember that the whole of the organisation is watching who gets the development investment, so it’s critical that the right people are on the program - and recent high performers with no track record or aspiration are not.

What success looks like

The HR/OD team has ensured:

  1. Everyone understands what high potential means

  2. You have a robust testing process for aspiration, ability and engagement

  3. You’ve secured informed manager involvement for the participants and the program.

Next steps

HFL works with clients across the Asia-Pacific to design compelling and effective high-potential leadership and expert programs. We advise clients on nominations processes (as above), course design, manager engagement strategies, post-program activities for high potential employees to keep them learning and engaged, and action learning projects. We willingly share white papers on all of these topics with potential clients. Contact us to get access.

Further reading:

Forgetting the “After Party”: Why high potential leaders leave organisations after being invested in