Potential is such a loaded word and can be incredibly subjective. Yet we throw it around a lot in leadership development circles. In fact, multiple talent management models (including the popular 9 Box approach) use potential as a cornerstone element.

When leadership performance and potential are assessed and plotted on the graph, individuals in the upper right quadrant (Box 1) are identified as high-potential candidates for succession, while those in the lower left quadrant (Box 9) may need to be reassigned or removed from the organization.shrm.org

Identifying high-potential employees should be on the radar of every leader; however, using a definition for hipo (high-potential) team members that clarifies how your organization recognizes and retains top talent is crucial.

How to Identify High-Potential Employees

The most important thing your team can do to retain future leaders is move from a fixed mindset concerning high-potential employees to a growth mindset.

What actually is potential? According to the dictionary, it is “having or showing the capacity to become or develop into something in the future.”

The problem talent management leaders face is we all have different definitions for what that something is. In other words, what is the “something” you are developing hipo individuals into?

Depending on the organization, role, experience, or your manager’s perspective, potential can mean many things.

One challenge with defining what is ‘potential’ in organizations is that the process of gauging it is elusive and imprecise — and can be highly subjective. And despite what some leaders would like to believe, potential does not equate to current or past performance.shrm.org.

What I typically hear when I ask others what they mean by the term potential is “management potential.” This definition implies that those who want a technical or craft-focused role have no potential for that organization over the intermediate or long term. 

And this is precisely why using potential as a key component of talent evaluation is so dangerous. The criteria for how a CTO evaluates potential relative to a Sales Manager or Marketing Leader vary widely. 

This mentality is a fixed mindset approach to talent evaluation that only sees the world in black and white (possibly with some limited shades of gray) instead of being full of vibrant color.

what do you want employees to have high potential for

What Do You Want Employees To Have High Potential For?

Limiting a team member’s potential to a specific role will decrease your ability to mentor growth opportunities that are much more expansive than a position and more valuable to your organization.

If your only lens for evaluating potential is fixed according to your organization’s immediate needs rather than using a spectrum that empowers top talent to contribute and even create new ways of providing value, you will hinder future leaders.

…science reveals that regardless of the context, job, and industry, such individuals tend to share a range of measurable qualities, which can be identified fairly early in the process. hbr.org

Another definition of potential is “qualities or abilities that may be developed and lead to future success.” I like this definition much better, and it should represent how talent management views the potential of their workforce.

To identify high-potential employees, leaders must expand their definition of potential to include room for the unique value that every team member offers. Next, mentor hipo individuals to empower them to contribute significantly to the organization.

The reality is that everyone on your team has potential. At Cloverleaf, we have a saying that ‘everyone has value.’

How our team aligns this value with the organization’s needs is fluid. We work to manage this dynamic rather than control it because we believe it grants freedom for our team to contribute their best work uniquely.

Would you rather help develop someone’s potential towards a fixed expectation or increase their capacity to add value?

Strictly adhering to labels like potential without mentoring team members to develop their unique leadership will minimize or cap the value each person brings to our teams and organizations.

Talent Development in the Age of AI



3 Effective Ways To Ensure You Consistently Develop High-Potential Employees To Provide Value

Adopting the belief that everyone has value (or potential) will impact how we lead, build culture, and make talent decisions. Doing so can help leaders increase collaboration and productivity as they choose to honor, empower, and coach hipo employees.

Here are three ways to effectively build a culture of developing high-potential employees:

1. Prioritize Coaching For Your Team That Is Personalized And Values-Based.

The Cloverleaf team uses our integrated coaching product to constantly reinforce these unique elements of value brought by each team member in a way that broadens everyone’s view of potential over time.

For example, imagine helping your team to further realize their strengths and those of their teammates.

Providing your team with relevant insights into themselves and those they work with will boost self-awareness, strengthen collaborative efforts, and minimize workplace drama.

2. Embed Recognition Of One Another’s Unique Value Into Your Teams Rhythms And Rituals.

Creating a practice that habituates celebrating team members’ competencies and accomplishments is a powerful way to supplement your employee development strategy.

This practice can include an all-team lunch weekly through Zoom, shout-outs that are rewarded with bonus opportunities, quarterly all-team off-sites, and regular team coaching sessions.

3. Allow Team Members Roles To Evolve Based On Their Motivation And Strengths.

Facilitating space for individuals to pivot within your organization that aligns with their giftings and natural drivers organically creates development opportunities for your entire team.

Although Cloverleaf is a smaller team, we have a track record of Internal mobility where roles evolve as stronger recognition of an individual’s strengths and interests surface. Repeatedly, we experience the benefits of innovation and engagement by permitting these types of transitions.

In Summary

It’s possible to limit your team’s potential by limiting your definition of what it means to develop it.

We should expand the definition of potential and create pathways for everyone to understand the unique value inherent in each of us and seek to align that with the needs of our organizations.

Stop using antiquated methods to identify high-potential employees according to the organization’s current needs. I encourage talent and people leaders to develop potential by fostering and coaching the inherent value each member offers your team.

You can begin the journey of multiplying your team’s potential by starting a free trial with Cloverleaf today.