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Perspectives on High Potentials: Defining and Identifying Talent in an Organisation
Date November 2011
Author Khoo Ee Wan
Topic Leadership and Management; Organisation Development
The process of growing older is often associated with a gradual decline in intellectual ability, quickness of thinking and memory capacity. For organisations that use cognitive ability tests to assess individuals of different age groups, this raises questions about the applicability of uniform standards of test performance. However, empirical research has shown some unexpected findings with regard to the process and onset of cognitive aging. This paper highlights key findings from the research literature and provides recommendations on how to handle cognitive ability testing across different age groups.


The identification and development of high potentials is a cornerstone of the talent strategy of many organisations and the Singapore public service is no exception. The assumptions, often unspoken, underlying this approach are that people can become more than what they currently are, and that different people have different levels of potential. Thus, if an organisation can identify as early as possible those people with a higher level of potential, it can then concentrate resources on developing these people to help them realise their potential, and through this process, efficiently build up a pipeline of talent who can eventually be the leaders of the organisation. While this is a sensible objective, Konczak & Foster (2009) found that organisations generally lack a clear definition for high potential, and even programme goals and objectives. This is problematic in talent management because if an organisation does not understand what it is trying to identify and for what purpose, how then can it ensure it is investing prudently in its future? Therefore, this paper seeks to better understand the definition of high potentials and the challenges associated with the identification of high potentials. The implications for talent management are discussed at the end.


In a study that Ready, Conger and Hill (2010) conducted, as many as 98% of the 45 organisations surveyed reported having a process for identifying high potentials. However, Silzer and Church (2009a), in a separate study, found that there was no clear, universal definition of potential, and some organisations relied on definitions that did not have a rigorous basis. In particular, many organisations define potential according to perceived likelihood of progression to a specific higher level in the organisation. Such definitions are so vague that they could be subject to different interpretations and different managers may rely on different criteria for identifying high potentials. In addition, a common misperception of managers, human resource practitioners, and even high potentials themselves, is to equate high performers with high potentials (Dries & Pepermans, 2008; Martin & Schmidt, 2010; Silzer & Church, 2009b). As a result, it is not uncommon for organisations to rely on past and current performance data to identify high potentials even though these individuals are moving to positions that may have significantly different demands and thus require a different set of behaviours for effective performance.

What is clear from the work of a number of researchers in this field is that high potentials are not the same as high performers. Nonetheless, potential and performance are related in that a higher level of potential tends to support a higher level of performance, and strong performance is often what helps high potentials to get noticed in the first place. Thus, it is not surprising to find that most high potentials are high performers (Martin & Schmidt, 2010; Ready et al, 2010). However, not all high performers are high potentials. Research by the Corporate Leadership Council of more than 20,000 high potential employees in more than 100 organisations worldwide revealed that only about 30% of high performers are high potentials (Martin & Schmidt, 2010). What distinguishes high potentials is that unlike high performers who are merely defined by their effectiveness in their current role, high potentials possess the qualities to be effective in roles involving broader responsibilities at higher levels in the organisational hierarchy, and the roles are to be assumed within the next 3–10 years or longer timeframe (Silzer & Church, 2009a). A survey of the current research and perspectives on high potentials (e.g., Campbell & Smith, 2010; Charan, Drotter, & Noel, 2001; Corporate Leadership Council, 2005; Ready et al, 2010; Silzer & Church, 2009a) indicates that these qualities include a combination of ability, motivation and engagement variables.



The abilities identified are typically based on the success profile of current leaders and/or the expected profile of future leaders, and tend to be fairly broad and generic, as the high potentials are not being selected for a particular target position but for a range of possible leadership positions. Intellectual abilities are almost always included as an important attribute because top leaders need the cognitive capacity to deal with complex business challenges. Personality-related interpersonal and emotional skills are important too as leaders have to manage themselves and work with a range of people and work through other people. In particular, they need to be able to lead a team, and that entails having the skills to manage, inspire, support and develop others in order to get the best out of them. Emotional resilience, an established predictor of long-term leadership success, is also commonly included as a key attribute because it helps leaders to deal with stressful situations. In addition, high potentials may be required to possess sound technical skills in their career field or relevant business knowledge. Essentially, these are skills and knowledge that will help them to succeed in their chosen career.


While ability is necessary, it is not a sufficient condition for being considered high potentials. Individuals may possess the ability but not be motivated to make use of their ability to perform on the job. Thus, in addition to ability, it is widely agreed that high potentials need to be driven to excel and achieve results. At the same time, beyond being motivated to excel in their current job (which could characterise high performers equally well), high potentials have a strong desire to lead and to advance in their career. This aspiration is important, as it is key to spurring the high potentials to put in the necessary effort to strive for, take on and succeed in progressively higher level leadership positions. This also means that the individuals are more likely to take the initiative to pursue career opportunities and relevant developmental challenges.


The "high potential" designation is only meaningful in the context of an organisation, and an organisation identifies high potentials because it wants to groom them to be future leaders. Hence, it is important that the organisation identifies people who are likely to stay in the long term. Thus, another attribute of high potentials is that they should feel a sense of engagement towards the organisation and is committed towards its mission and values. This is particularly important in this day and age when people typically have a greater range of career choices (Silzer & Church, 2009a) and are less likely to stay with a single organisation throughout their working life (Erickson, 2010).

Absence of derailers

The attributes described above are all positive attributes, and it is common to think of high potentials as individuals with certain positive attributes, and this is often a bias in the talent selection process. However, it is just as important that high potentials not possess attributes that may cause them to derail before reaching their full potential. Derailers include overplayed strengths. For instance, while the drive to excel and achieve results is a key attribute of high potentials and can lead to early success, this needs to be balanced by a concern for the needs and development of other people, as an over-emphasis on achievement could lead to morale and productivity issues among subordinates in the longer term (Spreier, Fontaine & Malloy, 2006). Recent perspectives on talent have also highlighted it is important for high potentials not to possess dark side qualities, which are socially undesirable attributes associated with derailment across as variety of organisations, levels and positions (Dalal & Nolan, 2009). These include narcissism, mischievousness and scepticism (Burke, 2006; Hogan & Hogan, 2001). For instance, narcissistic leaders — defined by Galvin, Waldman & Balthazard (2010) as those who have a self-centred perspective, feelings of superiority and a drive for personal power and glory — may come across as arrogant and dominant, lack empathy and be poor listeners, and be hypersensitive to criticism (Higgs, 2009). This would have a negative impact on interpersonal relationships and if they are in a senior leadership position, would damage the organisational climate and may cause them to make ill-advised decisions.1

Thus, in sum, high potentials are those who possess a combination of positive attributes that make them able and willing to take on more senior leadership positions, and no negative attributes that might derail them.


While research and practice have informed us of the attributes that define high potentials, the identification of high potentials is not simply about translating that list of attributes into selection criteria.


One of the challenges associated with the identification of high potentials is that these individuals are typically identified early in their career for their suitability for future jobs. Given the complexities and changes in the world today, it is increasingly difficult to define future jobs in specificity or with certainty, and it is entirely possible that the actual demands of future leadership roles could be different from those of current leadership roles and also different from what are predicted to be necessary in the future (McCall, 1998; Spreitzer, McCall & Mahoney, 1997). This is particularly likely given the typical long timeframe between when high potentials are identified and when they assume top leadership positions. Furthermore, even if future job demands can be accurately identified, standards of effectiveness, which are subjective in the first place, could change over time because of changes in societal norms, generational differences in what followers expect of leaders, as well as changes in organisational cultures and contexts (Goh & Hennessy, 2011; McCall, 1998). For instance, good leaders were once required to be mean and tough, but compassion is now a more desirable characteristic (Pfeffer & Sutton, 1996). Thus, even though we can draw up a list of attributes that define high potentials, it may not cover all the qualities that would eventually be needed to meet the demands of future leadership positions. This implies that important qualities might be omitted when high potentials are identified early in their career.

In view of the above challenges, some have argued that what is important is for high potentials to be able to learn and develop, so that they can adapt to new situations and continually master new types of expertise that are necessary throughout their career (e.g., Ready et al, 2010; Silzer & Church, 2009a). In fact, McCall (1998) highlighted that having a learning orientation was a key distinguishing factor between high potentials and high performers, and Lombardo & Eichinger (2000) essentially equated high potentials with high learners: people who seek more experiences to learn from, who enjoy complex problems and challenges associated with new experiences, who get more out of these experiences because they are interested in making sense of them, and who consequently perform better because they incorporate new skills into their repertoire of behaviour.


For the purpose of better understanding high potentials, it is useful to have a list of their attributes (or undesired attributes). However, this should not mislead us into thinking that potential is fixed and people do not change much over time. While evidence suggests that some individual characteristics — such as intelligence and some personality traits, including dark side qualities — do remain largely stable in adults over time and are typically difficult to change (e.g., reviews by Lombardo & Eichinger, 2000 and Silzer & Church, 2009a; Hogan & Hogan, 2001), there is a wealth of research showing that people can and do change, and some of the abilities required of high potentials could be developed even if they are not already present in some form early in one?s career (McCall, 1998).

People can acquire desirable abilities

Most obviously, career-related skills and knowledge could be acquired through accumulated experience, and this is a key reason that the programmes to develop high potentials often include providing exposure to a range of assignments so that they could gain the breadth of knowledge and skills that would help them to be effective leaders in the future. In addition, people can change because of other significant experiences at work and in life, and as a result of formal developmental interventions. For instance, disorienting experiences or events arising from career transitions and the presence of organisational stress, or general life events, may prompt an individual to reflect on his identity and competence, which may generate an awareness of developmental needs, leading him to put in the effort to learn and grow (Musselwhite & Dillon, 1987; Sargent & Schlossberg, 1988; Van Velsor & Musselwhite, 1986). In fact, Spreitzer et al (1997, p. 6) concluded that it is the accumulation of learning from ?a series of increasingly demanding transitions and experiences? that results in the development of important leadership skills. Similarly, studies on the performance of experts in their respective fields suggest that their success is the result not of talent, but of around 10 years of nearly daily, deliberate practice (Ericsson, Prietula & Cokely, 2007). Thus, people could become high potentials by developing some of the abilities deemed to be important for future success.

People may develop undesirable characteristics

The converse may also be true in that people may develop undesirable characteristics over time. For instance, high potentials who have achieved much early success may become arrogant and develop an unrealistic sense of their capabilities, resulting in flawed judgements (Berglas, 2009) or a reluctance to accept alternative ideas or feedback from others (Chaleff, 2008). Some may even become less adaptable as they rigidly hold on to outdated approaches that have served them well hitherto (Berglas, 2009). These undesirable characteristics could make them less suitable for future leadership positions, thus actually reducing their potential.

People's motivations and sense of engagement to an organisation may change

Furthermore, people's motivational attributes and sense of engagement to an organisation and commitment to its mission and values are liable to change. An individual's interests, motivations and career aspirations may well change over the course of his career because of factors such as exposure to new experiences, discovery of new passions, an evolving understanding of his inclinations and value system, as well as family commitments. These changes may have an impact on his desire to advance to higher level leadership jobs in the organisation. For instance, early in his career, a high potential officer may be highly driven to devote much time and energy to his work, and aspires to be a future leader in the organisation. However, as he pursues his personal interests outside work and takes on supervisory roles, he may discover that his inclinations lie in other areas and he redefines the meaning of success to him. This change in priority may reduce his potential as he becomes less interested in pursuing and advancing to higher level leadership jobs and/or less interested in remaining in the organisation.

Potential can be influenced by various situational and contextual factors

Much of the 20th-century leadership literature adopts an individualistic, heroic perspective of leaders as the key determinant of organisational success or failure, and which emphasises the qualities that leaders need to possess or the behaviours they need to display (e.g., review by Bolden, Gosling, Marturano & Dennison, 2003). This is the world view that has led to the focus on a few select individuals who are labelled as "high potentials". However, it is questionable if potential is a quality that resides solely within the individual. Instead, an interactionist view of potential is that it can, to some extent, be co-created by the individual and others. This is because situational and contextual variables, as well as social influence, can have an impact on the identification, expression and development of high potential.

First of all, the label of "high potential", as with many social labels, could create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Some studies have found that such labelling could influence how much potential a person actually displays, especially when the labelling is from an authority figure or organisational leader (Carmeli & Schaubroeck, 2007; Cialdini & Goldstein, 2004). The label could also influence other people's perceptions and judgements of this individual as having high potential (Eden & Shani, 1982), which might have an impact on their willingness to support this person's development and help him enhance his performance. Conversely, being labelled "not high potential" could be demotivating and destroy potential.

Secondly, managers' mindsets and behaviours are crucial. Managers who believe that people are essentially fixed in their ways because human attributes are innate and unalterable (i.e., managers who have a fixed mindset) tend to be less able to discern between good and poor employee performance and are less likely to review their initial evaluation of their employees in response to performance changes (Heslin, Latham & VandeWalle, 2005). Thus, they are less able to identify subordinates with high potential. In addition, they tend to invest less in developing their subordinates (Heslin, 2009). On the other hand, managers who believe that abilities and skills can be developed (i.e., managers who adopt a growth mindset) tend to be better able to recognise potential in their staff, and to have a developmental approach towards staff (Heslin, 2009). The importance of bosses who can act as a catalyst for development by challenging their staff to move out of their zone, setting them challenging assignments, and then providing them with trust, autonomy, protection and support has been established through various studies by the Centre for Creative Leadership, including a study with Singapore public service leaders (Yip & Wilson, 2008). A review by the Centre for Leadership Development on developmental readiness also found that managerial support could influence subordinates' ability and motivation to learn (Chia & Khoo, 2010), which would in turn affect the extent to which they develop their potential. Managers' ability to provide a job fit for their subordinates is important too, as "every employee's potential can be increased when they are able to find places inside (and outside) of organisations where their unique constellation of strengths will allow them to perform and grow" (Yost & Chang, 2009, pp. 442–443).

Thirdly, the expression of high potential depends in part on the organisational culture and context: whether the business strategy, the organisational structure and work processes would encourage talent to be effectively utilised (Silzer & Church, 2009a). In addition, a learning culture in the organisation promotes development and growth in individuals (Chia & Khoo, 2010), and this might encourage the development of potential.


Thus, since people change and potential can likewise fluctuate and be influenced by various situational and contextual variables, the challenge for the early identification of high potentials lies in identifying what to select for and when to select. In addition, talent managers need to understand that regardless how perfect the selection process is, much could be done to help people maximise their potential as potential is not a fixed entity, and high potential is not something that people either have or not have. Yost and Chang (2009, p. 443) expressed this perspective succinctly when they described potential as something that is "discovered and developed over time". These issues raise questions about how high potentials should be identified and developed in an organisation.


What to assess

Firstly, high potentials are not the same as high performers. What distinguishes high potentials from high performers is that beyond demonstrating effectiveness in their current position, they possess the ability, motivation and engagement to succeed in future leadership roles in the organisation, and do not possess significant potential derailers. Thus, organisations need to go beyond merely considering results or performance data in existing jobs when identifying high potentials, else they run the risk of overlooking hidden talent or identifying high performers who may not be high potentials.

In the identification process, there needs to be a balanced consideration of the positive attributes that are required in the context of the organisation, and the possible derailers. Particularly important in the early identification of high potentials would be characteristics that are relatively stable and difficult to change, such as intelligence and some personality traits. Qualities related to the ability to learn and grow should also be assessed, as possessing these qualities would help young high potentials to master new expertise throughout their career, which is particularly important given that the circumstances in which they operate are dynamic and it is not possible to select for all the qualities that are needed in the future. Other qualities that could be more readily developed or influenced need not be selected for, but could be the focus of subsequent developmental interventions.

When to assess

In addition, since people can and do change to some extent, this suggests that there should be continuous assessment and reassessment of people's suitability to be considered high potentials. The implication of this is that the high potential system would be a more fluid one where people can move in and out depending on their current level of potential. Indeed, Henson (2009) reported an organisational trend towards more fluid high potential systems. Compared to a high potential system where there is a single point of entry, a fluid system would provide more opportunities for individuals to be identified as high potentials. This would allow for late bloomers to be identified and might motivate those not currently considered high potentials (Henson, 2009), which would help the organisation establish a larger pool of high potentials. Moreover, compared to a high potential system where there is no point of exit, people are likely to be more mindful of possible derailers and those who choose to remain in the high potential pool are likely to be genuinely committed. One thing to bear in mind is that a fluid pool would require greater thought in managing the high potentials since it is no longer a one-size-fits-all approach — people may enter the pool at any age and at any stage of their career, and thus their development needs could be very different (Byham, 2003).


Since potential is not fixed, it is obvious that much could be done to help people maximise their potential. In organisations, this is commonly achieved through fast-tracking, which entails providing high potentials with a range of accelerated development opportunities (including both formal training and on-the-job assignments) so that they can quickly gain the necessary experience and skills that would enable them to be the future leaders of the organisation. Beyond this, steps can be taken to help high potentials benefit more from their experience by influencing their level of developmental readiness.2

Furthermore, managers and organisations could do more to co-create and support the development of potential in their staff. For example, managers could be encouraged to adopt a growth mindset and a developmental approach towards their staff, so that they can contribute towards developing more talent in the organisation. Besides providing opportunities for their staff to acquire career-related skills and knowledge, managers could spend more time discussing career interests and aspirations with their subordinates, and help them explore where and how they could best contribute to the organisation. In all these endeavours, a supportive organisational culture and context would be beneficial.


It is widely assumed that a high potential programme is important for the success of an organisation and it is important to evaluate if such programmes are indeed effective or what could be done to make them more effective; otherwise, organisations may focus so much on identifying high potentials that it becomes an end goal in itself that is delinked from a consideration of the real objectives and outcomes of the programme. This is essential as high potential programmes, and fast tracking in particular, are not without their pitfalls,3 and it is estimated that the majority of managers derail before reaching their full potential (Dalal & Nolan, 2009).

As mentioned earlier, the focus on high potential grows out of a tradition that adopts an individualistic, heroic perspective of leaders and is premised on the fundamental belief that individual talent is important. An alternative perspective on potential is that individual talent is less relevant than collective, organisational talent. In this day and age, in a work context where issues are increasingly complex, few people work in isolation; tasks are often accomplished in teams, and there is evidence that a collection of high potential individuals may not necessarily be more effective than a team of people with lower potential but who cooperate better and play complementary roles (Belbin, 1981). Moreover, the notion of leadership as a quality that resides in and is exercised by only a few select individuals is being questioned, with more holistic views of leadership being put forth. For instance, an emerging trend in the field of leadership is to view leadership as a shared or distributed process, with team members collectively leading one another (e.g., review by Bolden et al, 2003). If so, then the importance of a single leader is challenged and the rationale of identifying high potential individuals so that they can then be groomed to become future leaders for the organisation may be irrelevant. This calls for a radical re-thinking of the value of a high potential scheme as it may be more important for organisations to focus on building high performing teams rather than identifying and developing high potential individuals.

In addition, by emphasising and rewarding individual achievement, organisations may inevitably contribute to high potential managers and leaders paying more attention to their own career than the development of their subordinates and the next generation of leaders (Bottger & Barsoux, 2010; Iles, 1994; Thompson, Kirkham & Dixon, 1985). This would reduce the amount of learning in the organisation as a whole. In fact, a number of researchers have pointed out that it may be more important for organisations to focus on increasing the overall potential of the whole organisation — via focusing on organisational systems and supporting opportunities for all staff to develop and realise their unique potential — rather than on a select few employees with the potential for managerial and leadership roles, as this would provide a larger talent base for the organisation that would contribute to more sustainable organisational success in the longer term (Dominick & Gabriel, 2009; Gritzmacher, 1989; Larsen, 1997; Yost & Chang, 2009).

These issues raise the possibility that rather than focusing narrowly on a select pool of individuals identified as high potentials for managerial and leadership positions, there is value in building talent for other critical roles as well as high potentials teams. Such a broadened perspective of potential would help to build a larger talent base for the organisation.


In an article written back in 2002, Gladwell criticised organisations' over-emphasis on the importance of individual talent, terming it "the talent myth" (p. 28). As we have seen in this paper, talent is not a myth in that some personal qualities are important for success in leadership roles and that individuals do possess these qualities to different extents. Nonetheless, organisations need to be aware that potential is a quality that may fluctuate over time, and the emphasis on individuals needs to be balanced with the consideration that potential is a quality that extends beyond the individual and that it takes a whole system for high potentials to succeed. It is also possible that collective talent may be just as important as, or even more important than, individual talent. Such a broadened perspective on potential would help inform and improve the talent strategy of an organisation.

This paper has explored a range of issues related to the identification of high potentials. However, some questions remain and future research in this area could explore: how best to select high potentials; if there is a most meaningful and useful point in time to identify high potentials; the impact of high potential programmes on the organisation; the effectiveness of high potential programmes in generating future leaders for the organisation; the attributes of high potentials that are most important for success, particularly in the Singapore public sector context; and the role that high potential teams can play in an organisation.


Khoo Ee Wan is Senior Consultant, Selection & Assessment, in the Centre for Leadership Development in the Civil Service College. The Centre provides leadership assessment, leadership development and leadership research services.


01. For a fuller discussion on derailers, please refer to the earlier research report by the Centre for Leadership Development: Khoo, E. W., & Tham, C. (2010) Understanding Managerial Derailment. Singapore: Civil Service College.
02. For a fuller discussion on how organisations can help staff gain from developmental opportunities, please refer to the earlier Centre of Leadership Development research report: Chia, N. N., & Khoo, E. W. (2010) Understanding Developmental Readiness. Singapore: Civil Service College.
03. The benefits and pitfalls of fast-tracking will be examined in greater depth in an upcoming paper by the Centre for Leadership Development.

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Last updated: 20 July 2012
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