High-potential employees, or HIPOs, are supposed to be an organization’s future. However, correctly identifying which employees have the most potential is often a difficult task, due to ambiguity surrounding the term HIPO and the fact that most managers don’t seem to believe their organizations’ criteria for high potential are accurate. Moreover, HIPO selection is easily “politicized”: In a recent Harvard Business Review post, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic and Abhijit Bhaduri discussed six ways managers often play politics in identifying, promoting, and developing HIPOs, namely the politics of intuition, self-interest, avoidance, favoritism, ageism, and gender:
In short, the politics of potential can prevent organizations from upgrading their leadership talent and make data-driven decisions an anomaly rather than the norm. Too many times we have seen the CEO’s favorite candidate be put through a formal assessment simply as a way of confirming a decision that has already been made in advance, not for merit.
Our research at CEB, now Gartner, has touched on all of these political dynamics, and fortunately we’ve found some straightforward and practical solutions to the problems identified here. Organizations using best practices are ensuring their HIPOs are managed as enterprise assets and not held captive to the whims of a manager. Here are some real-world examples of how organizations are overcoming the six political barriers Chamorro-Premuzic and Bhaduri identify (and CEB Corporate Leadership Council members can click through the below links for more information on our research):
The politics of intuition occurs when managers “follow their gut” when nominating HIPOs based on their own judgement of employee performance and future capability. Instead, all managers within an organization should have standardized, clear, and business-relevant criteria to identify HIPOs. CEB recommends evaluating employees for potential against three key characteristics: Ability, aspiration, and engagement. Critically, managers need to be involved in validating the details of these criteria to ensure that HIPO they are not an abstract HR concept. Our recent study on high-potential employees shared a real-world practice Black Hills Corporation uses to align HIPO identification to changing business needs, in order to identify the best HIPOs to fill emerging leadership opportunities.
The politics of self-interest comes from managers who are interested in advancing their own career or team and choose to retain HIPOs to keep the talent for their personal or business unit’s benefit. This prevents HIPOs from being identified and accessing the right development opportunities to further their performance and aspirations, and address the firm’s own capability needs. Organizations should begin by presenting the business case for an objective identification process by explaining how high-potential employees are one of the organization’s most important assets, then following up with a checklist to keep managers accountable through better tracking of the identification process and incentives.
The politics of avoidance happens when managers falsely identify employees as HIPOs. The majority of these managers want to avoid confrontation with their direct reports. By placing these employees on the HIPO track, managers are relieved from uncomfortable situations, but organizations waste resources failing to develop a future leader who is unlikely to succeed. Organizations can help managers face these difficult conversations by training managers to respond effectively to HIPO conversations. Sony Electronics prepared managers by framing the communication of one’s potential around individual and business goals to reach alignment and create next action steps to achieve both goals.
The politics of favoritism arises from intentional and unintentional managerial biases. Managers may unfairly favor one employee over another for reasons ranging from a long history together to a strong first impression (positive or negative). The good news is that one manager’s favoritism can be overcome if there are more stakeholders in HIPO identification. FINRA, for example, has peers rate the readiness of HIPO candidates to provide a more reliable assessment process.
The politics of ageism enters the process when managers believe a certain age cohort is necessarily lacking in one of the three attributes of HIPOs. For example, older employees could be ranked higher on ability simply due to having more years of experience, or managers could incorrectly assume they have low aspirations. Organizations should use analytics to understand their pool of high-potential talent, looking at the averages and distributions of the pool by age, tenure in the organization, and other factors to target and adjust for areas of high or low participation.
The politics of gender refers to the lack of women in HIPO programs due to bias from colleagues and leadership. To tackle this issue during the identification phase, BBVA implemented a gender-blind HIPO assessment process by removing identifying information from HIPO applications and discussions.
These political barriers to HIPO identification and development arise from managers not working toward enterprise-level goals. Managers might resent HIPO programs due to the prioritization of the enterprise over their personal or business unit’s more urgent needs. However, the best HIPO programs are designed to support all levels of the business, not operate in opposition to managers.
Organizations need to get managers to understand how high-potential programs are about driving towards enterprise objectives in the short- and long-term. If you have to resort to personal incentives for managers to buy into the concept, find and root out the “politics” at play. Our latest research is all about designing HIPO strategies that move at the speed of business to solve this problem. By creating an agile process for high-potential programs—as opposed to worrying about developing agile people—organizations more effectively expand ownership of needs identification beyond HR, actively manage HIPOs’ aspirations over time, and take ownership of HIPOs’ career progression.