High Potentials vs. High Performers: A Manager’s Guide to Identify, Assess and Develop

Mistaking a high-performing employee for a high-potential employee can be costly. As Vincent van de Belt, a consultant at Cubiks, points out, “If an organization is not able to distinguish between performance and potential, it will have difficulty identifying talent.”

This happens all the time. A top-performing sales rep is promoted to sales manager, and struggles to transition from killing his sales goals to helping a team of junior reps kill theirs. Meanwhile, the junior rep whose hard work has facilitated the success of sales teams for years feels undervalued, and decides it’s time to start looking for growth opportunities elsewhere. Both scenarios hurt morale and drive turnover.

“Performance and potential are not mutually exclusive. Van de Belt suggests that “people always possess a combination of both.”

But a manager who understands the difference will be more effective in engaging and retaining employees who exemplify aptitude in one or both. To that end, this article outlines strategies any manager can apply to identify, assess, and develop high potentials and high performers.

Identifying High Performers and High Potentials

High performers stand out in any organization. They consistently exceed expectations, and are management’s go-to people for difficult projects because they have a track record of getting the job done. They’re great at their job and take pride in their accomplishments, but may not have the potential (or the desire) to succeed in a higher-level role or to tackle more advanced work.

High potentials are birds of a different feather. Malcolm Munro, President at Total Career Mastery, LLC, says that “High potentials have demonstrated initial aptitude for their technical abilities and…have future potential to make a big impact.” In short, they can do more for the organization–possibly much more–with the caveat that high potentials who are consistently low performers are rarely strong candidates for management roles.

High potentials can be difficult to identify, for two reasons. First, high performance is so blindingly easy to observe that it drowns out the less obvious attributes and behaviors that characterize high potentials–like change management or learning capabilities.

Second, few organizations codify the attributes and competencies they value in their ideal employees–which means that managers don’t know precisely what to look for to assess potential. As a result, most managers focus exclusively on performance, and that can be a problem.

“When performance is the only criteria employees are evaluated on,” warns Brian Kight, Director of Performance at Focus 3, “high performers will be the only ones moving up–and your high potentials will be moving out”

Don’t get me wrong–you should definitely value and reward performance. If your end goal is to build a more robust talent pipeline, though, performance can’t be the only point of entry. Kight advocates working with leadership to profile what constitutes excellence in key roles, and communicating that to managers to help them identify high potentials.

Assessing Performance vs. Potential

Because employees possess varying degrees performance and potential, you should assess your employees across both dimensions. Figure 1 provides a framework for identifying where an employee falls in the spectrum.

High Performance Regularly exceeds expectations
Lacks skills for success at higher level
Sets standard of excellence in role
Model leadership candidate
Low Performance Little-to-no aptitude
Weak, unsatisfactory performance
Above-average aptitude
Inconsistent performance
Low Potential High Potential

Figure 1: Typical traits of performance vs. potential.

After you’ve determined which quadrant an employee falls under, you can develop a plan for employee development. “Each of these categories requires a specific approach when it comes to discussing development opportunities,” says van de Belt.

Development Strategies

In an ideal world, every employee in your organization would be a high performer with high potential–but that’s obviously not realistic. The appropriate question is how to move employees toward the upper-right quadrant, or at least to the high-performance tier.

It’s not always possible, nor always the desired goal (you might want to keep your high performers right where they are, for instance). There’s no one-size-fits-all strategy, but Figure 2 provides a general framework.

High Performance Keep them where they are, or promote
Constant encouragement
Challenging assignments
Soft skill development
Keep them where they are, or promote
Provide autonomy
Low Performance Performance plan
Pair with a High Performer
New role better aligned with skills
Test with more responsibilities
Low Potential High Potential

Figure 2: Development strategies to consider.

“High performers need constant encouragement and challenging assignments. Recognition is key,” says Munro.

Kight agrees, pointing out that “High performers tend to be lone wolves, working for themselves and their own success.” As such, they want something to execute on a bigger scale. Give them the independence and autonomy that allows them to thrive, and engage them with projects that they can take full ownership of.

Alternately, Munro suggests pairing high-potential employees with established high performers who can serve as mentors.

“They need to know that while they are high potential, they need seasoning. On-the-job training is a great way to accomplish this.”

As they develop a stronger understanding of the organization and their role in it, test the capabilities of high potentials with more projects to manage, new hires to train, put them in charge of an intern or two, or offer cross-training opportunities. If they do well, consider moving them into a different role–perhaps one with more responsibilities–in which they may perform better.

A Stronger Talent Pipeline for a Stronger Company

Your managers play a bigger role in building a pipeline of thriving talent than they may realize, and it’s increasingly important that you empower them to do this successfully. While employee development is no cakewalk, failure to assess performance versus potential is a very real business problem.

The good news is that it’s a solvable problem. It simply takes dedication to identifying your high-potential and high-performing employees, assessing their competencies and attributes, and putting them on the path to success. It’s time well spent.

You may also like

How to Structure Your HR Department As Your Company Grows

Do Managers Have Enough Insight to Assess Their Employees?

How SMBs Can Begin to Assess Employee Flight Risk

Compare Top Performance Management Software