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High-Potential Employees

Focus on 'How', Not 'What' High Potential Employees Learn

Giving the right job-related experiences, and action plans to help learn from them, can boost their performance by up to 30%

High-potential employees (HIPOs) are incredibly valuable to a company. If the firm can keep hold of them and train them in the right way, they are the ones who will one day hold the top jobs and make decisions that will determine the company’s future.

They are 91% more valuable than non-HIPOs in an organization, according to CEB data. So it is important to find which employees are HIPOs – it’s not the same thing as a high-performing employee – and to use objective benchmarking to ascertain whether your HIPOs have sufficiently high potential.

But once the HR team and senior managers have done that, they need to make sure that their green shoots of future success will one day bear fruit.

This is where a lot of HIPO programs – whose aim is to find, retain, and develop HIPOs – go off the rails. Only 5% of programs follow through properly with action plans to develop HIPOs, so it’s no surprise that nearly two-thirds (64%) of HIPOs say they are unhappy with their development.

Spend Less Time in the Classroom

Even when companies do put real focus into HIPO development, most rely on formal classroom or online training. Yet only 10% of what all of us learn comes from this kind of training, according to the widely accepted 70:20:10 model. Most of our knowledge (70%) comes from job-related experiences, and 20% from peers and mentors. Essentially, the model shows that learning is a continuous process.

So HIPOs don’t just need training courses, they need experiences that allow them to practice new skills. Such “learning exposure” needs to be tailored to the individual’s career goals and challenges. It might mean, for instance, taking on a tough project that’s failing and turning it around.

And if HIPO programs get these experiences right, they can improve HIPOs’ knowledge and skills by up to 16%.

Three Ways to Make the Lessons Stick

But there’s another hurdle to overcome. High quality learning won’t necessarily lead to better performing HIPOs. What people really need to know is how to extract what they need from their knowledge to help them perform better.

It helps to think about how you approach something really hard, like learning to play a musical instrument. At first, it’s difficult. You have to concentrate and you perform slowly and deliberately. As you practice, things get easier, especially if you try different approaches and your tutor gives you feedback on what to adjust.

Finally, after yet more practice you find that you no longer even think about playing – you do it naturally.

This is just as true of learning skills in business. Extracting learning requires these three simple elements that should be central to all HIPO development.

  1. Practice: Action plans need to focus employees on the most difficult aspects of a new task and set aside time for these to be done many times until they are done well.

  2. Reflect: Employees need to be encouraged to stop, think about, and even document what went well and what they’ll try differently next time to improve the results.

  3. Get feedback: Action plans should include asking others to rate employees’ performance and its effect on their work. Encourage them to get feedback from multiple perspectives.

Giving HIPOs relevant on-the-job experiences that stretch them, and action plans that embed these three elements, leads to performance improvements of up to 30%, according to CEB analysis.

Nearly three-quarters of HIPO programs (generally run by the HR team) are struggling to demonstrate any return. Putting a good development plan in place and being able to quote performance improvements of nearly a third would be a great response when the CFO next asks whether all that “HIPO budget” is worth it.



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One Response

  • You stated that high-potential employees are incredibly valuable and if the company can keep hold of them and train them in the right way, they are the ones who will one day hold the top jobs and make decisions that will determine the company’s future. Are there certain characteristics that can be seen that will determine if they fit the criteria? I imagine that a company would want to find as many of these employees as possible. Training as many high-potential employees as possible seems like a valuable option.

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