Consider two employees, Alex and Morgan, both exceptional in their own right, but each showcasing distinct qualities and paths. Alex has been a consistent star performer in the sales department for the past five years. He is the go-to person for clients, always ensuring a seamless experience. Morgan, on the other hand, is a vibrant spirit, his mind teeming with innovative ideas. He is often seen brainstorming new strategies, thinking about how to leverage emerging technologies to revolutionise the sales process, and inspiring his colleagues with his forward-thinking approach.
While Alex is a super performer, doing exceptionally well in his current role, Morgan identifies as a high potential, who possess the ability to not only excel in his current role but to take on more challenges in the future.
In the world of work, the terms ‘high potential’ and ‘high performer’ are often used interchangeably, but they represent distinct groups of employees.
How to distinguish between ‘high potentials’ and high performers
“One differentiating factor for high potentials is their adaptability. They tend to be exceptionally flexible and exhibit agility when it comes to acquiring new skills, adapting to changing situations, making unconventional decisions and thinking outside the established norms,” believes Amit Sharma, former CHRO, Volvo Group. These individuals have the capacity to venture beyond routine or traditionally-defined approaches, both in their learning and their decision-making.
Agreeing with the same, Anil Gaur, managing partner, People Equations and a senior HR professional, points out, “High-potential individuals possess the capacity to evolve and take on more significant responsibilities and roles, indicative of a forward-looking and future-oriented mindset.”
Unlike high performers who consistently prove themselves in the current role, high potentials consistently operate at a level beyond their current position. They tend to envision themselves in the next role, and their actions, decisions and overall approach reflect this forward-looking perspective.
“One differentiating factor for high potentials is their adaptability. They tend to be exceptionally flexible and exhibit agility when it comes to acquiring new skills, adapting to changing situations, making unconventional decisions and thinking outside the established norms.”
Amit Sharma, former CHRO, Volvo Group
Moreover, the motivation drivers differ significantly between these two groups. “High-potential employees are eager to understand when their next growth opportunity will arrive. They will be excited if selected for a training programme or a project that will prepare them for an assignment three years down the line,” enunciates Nihar Ghosh, senior HR leader.
“By definition, a high-potential person is someone who has a strong desire to grow. This is the foundation of the distinction. High-potential individuals not only possess the ability to grab growth opportunities but also harbour an aspiration for continuous growth. They yearn to learn more, accomplish more, and take on more significant challenges. Consequently, they are always looking for opportunities that extend beyond their current roles,” points out Ghosh.
Simply put, high-potential employees are seen as more suited for leadership roles. This is because “they tend to possess a more extensive skill set, which not only encompasses technical prowess but also a knack for strategic thinking,” opines Gaur. Additionally, they possess a visionary outlook, think beyond the immediate and visualise the bigger picture for the business.
As Sharma aptly puts it,“High-potential individuals possess an internal hunger, an intrinsic motivation — a ‘fire in the belly’ — along with the courage to forge connections, to persevere in the face of obstacles and to relentlessly push forward.”
“By definition, a high-potential person is someone who has a strong desire to grow. This is the foundation of the distinction. High-potential individuals not only possess the ability to grab growth opportunities but also harbour an aspiration for continuous growth. They yearn to learn more, accomplish more, and take on more significant challenges,”
Nihar Ghosh, senior HR leader
Through their keen perception, analytical skills and a robust strategic mindset, they are versatile in terms of their skill set. High-potential individuals are not limited to a single domain. Instead, they exhibit a willingness to experiment and diversify their expertise across various areas, all with a long-term vision in mind.
“However, it’s crucial to acknowledge that retaining high-potential individuals can be quite challenging. They enter the organisation with a unique blend of skills and strengths, and companies often struggle to keep them engaged. These individuals require a specific, nurturing work environment to perform at their best,” cautions Gaur.
Organisations must handle both the groups of employees differently, especially high potentials, when it comes to rewards, recognition and the support they need.
“Having a distinct approach to reward both groups is essential as the entire talent- management programme of organisations is structured around high potentials. It ensures that the organisation always has a pool of capable individuals. It’s designed to create leaders from within the organisation, focusing on nurturing those leaders for the future,” explains Ghosh.
One approach can be through a two-by-two matrix. Citing an example, Sharma explains, “High-performing employees should be rewarded for their current contributions, acknowledging their immediate impact, but when dealing with high-potential employees, the emphasis shifts to fostering growth.” This involves preparing them for future leadership roles, offering growth opportunities, engaging them in challenging projects and assigning enriching tasks. The rewards package for high potentials is structured with an eye on their developmental journey and their aspirations for advancement.
“High-potential individuals possess the capacity to evolve and take on more significant responsibilities and roles, indicative of a forward-looking and future-oriented mindset.”
Anil Gaur, managing partner, People Equations and senior HR professional
Additionally, organisations must provide them with necessary support for their mental, psychological and emotional well-being. “High performers are typically content with tangible rewards such as salary increases, a pat on the back, or occasional promotions. In contrast, high- potential individuals have a different destination in mind. Without proper care and attention, they may seek opportunities elsewhere,” advises Gaur.
High potentials and high performers commonly share the aspiration for growth, motivating them to acquire new skills and excel in their current roles. However, when high-potential individuals are identified, it’s imperative to provide them with the right opportunities, or they may become dissatisfied.
Hence, “To keep high potentials engaged, organisations should continuously offer exciting opportunities that help them build on their strengths, preparing them for bigger roles. Career discussions and conversations are essential to guide their career progression within the organisation,” asserts Ghosh.
Both Sharma and Ghosh believe that in an organisational context, it’s essential to have both high- potential and high-performer individuals. After all, while an organisation certainly has future aspirations, the current business operations must also be effectively delivered,” concludes Ghosh.