What Is a “High Potential” Anyway?






Recently, we have found ourselves talking with our members about high-potential (“HiPo”) identification and assessment processes more and more frequently. Besides assessing and calibrating critical roles and talent, as well as conducting talent reviews, the identification and development of high-potential talent in an organization is one the most key aspects of succession management.[1] However, we find that organizations often struggle to define not only the how and the who of HiPo identification, but also with describing what high potential actually means.

At Bersin by Deloitte, we define HiPos as employees who have been identified as having the potential, ability, and aspiration to hold successive leadership positions within the company. Although we have seen alternative descriptions that include top performers with the potential to move to higher, nonleadership roles, HiPos are generally considered potential future leaders. Our most recent global leadership research has revealed something important about this facet of high potential[2]: In order to define what high potential means in an organization, it is important to first define a solid company identity and leadership model.

What does successful leadership look like?

According to our most recent global leadership research (with data from more than 2,000 global HR, L&D, and business leaders), having a clearly defined company identity (i.e., knowing how the organization wants to be viewed by its customers) and a clearly communicated leadership model (i.e., knowing what great leadership looks like for the organization) are critical components of an organizations’ overall maturity level when it comes to leadership. Our data tells us that while 61 percent of companies have a clearly defined company identity, only 32 percent clearly communicate their leadership model throughout the organization.[3]

Further complicating matters, we cannot rely on historical data or traditional approaches to describe the leadership qualities of HiPos. The meaning of leadership itself has changed in the new world of work[4]: Strict hierarchies and positional thinking have been replaced by a focus on social networks, distributed teams, and an open talent economy. Therefore, both the way organizations do business and the dynamic between leaders and followers are different[5] than the norms of the past, requiring us to have a whole new perspective on leadership processes.  

If organizations are unclear about what effective leadership looks, sounds, and feels like, how can high potentials—future leaders—be identified and assessed in a meaningful and aligned manner?

A starting point: defining the what before the who in the HiPo identification process

Given these challenges to both redefining leadership itself and defining a leadership model that fits your organization’s business strategy and culture, the following steps may help to enable a more strategic HiPo identification process:

First, think about the what (i.e., What does it mean to be a HiPo in your organization?).

  1. Start with the business strategy: What does the business need now and in the next two years?

  2. Describe your company identity: How does you organziations want to be seen by current and future customers?

  3. Define a leadership model: What does great leadership look like at your organization?

  4. Describe the core leadership competencies or capabilities accordingly[6]: What do leaders need to do to execute the business strategy to meet your goals in the way you want them to?

Only after answering the questions above should the organization then consider the how and who (i.e., methods to identify, assess, and develop your HiPo population).

As a reference point, the figure below shows how global organizations assess their HiPos.


Source: Bersin by Deloitte, 2016  

For feedback, questions, or comments please contact me at mailto:aderler@deloitte.com.


[1] High-Impact Succession Management: Factors and Dimensions, Bersin by Deloitte / Kim Lamoureux and Andrea Derler, PhD, 2016.

[2] This information is based on our current research on the topic of high-impact leadership, the report for which is due to be published fall 2016.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Predictions for 2015: Redesigning the Organization for a Rapidly Changing World, Bersin by Deloitte / Josh Bersin, 2015.

[5] The Future of Leadership in a Changing Workplace, Bersin by Deloitte / Andrea Derler, PhD, 2016.  

[6] Only 32 percent of organizations “always or very frequently” base their leadership competency model on the business strategy. This information is based on our current research on the topic of high-impact leadership, the report for which is due to be published fall 2016. 

Andrea Derler

Leadership & Succession Research Leader / Bersin, Deloitte Consulting LLP

Andrea leads Bersin’s research execution team and also serves as leadership and succession management research leader for Bersin, Deloitte Consulting LLP. Focused on the continued evolution of Bersin’s research capabilities, her expertise lies in research on business leadership, leadership development and learning, and related talent topics. Her work about leaders’ ideal employee received widespread media attention in Europe and has been published in the journal Leadership & Organization Development. Andrea has a doctoral degree in economics (leadership and organization) from the FernUniversity Hagen (Germany) and a master’s degree in philosophy from the Karl-Franzens-University in Graz (Austria).

2 thoughts on “What Is a “High Potential” Anyway?

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  2. While it is important to understand the definition of a HiPo talent HiPo has also been used in referring to High Potential Organizations. I would go so far as to suggest that similarly the associated definition of a HiPo organization would be an organization’s potential to be a leader in its industry or in the market place.

    I believe we could pretty much use the same definitions as presented herewith by interchanging references to the leadership potentials of individuals with the leadership potentials of organizations within their industries or market places.

    The same competencies used at different organizations and the number of HiPo leaders in each organizations would most likely correlate directly with how much High Potential the organization has. I would be interested to see any similar studies along these lines.

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