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5 Common Traits of High Potentials

5 Common Traits of High Potentials

What are the traits high potentials possess?

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by Cheong Khai Meng

A Korn Ferry’s global study reported that only 51% of respondents that they surveyed expressed confidence that their organization knows which candidates they should be investing in as potential future leaders.  That means 49% are not exactly sure if they are investing in the right candidates.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we have some kind of a crystal ball that can foretell if an employee is truly a high potential so that we can invest in them confidently?  That will certainly saves us a lot of work and resources.  However, we know that there is no such crystal ball.  In the absence of such a magical tool, some of us rely on our experience or gut feel to figure out if someone is a high potential. Others would use available tools and techniques like psychometric assessments, behavioral interviews, assessment centers etc., to help decide with some level of certainty if an employee is a high potential.  Whatever techniques or methods that you are using, your goal is to ensure that the right high potential employees are identified so that the return-on-investment is worthwhile.

Different organizations have different ways of defining and identifying high potential. Whatever definitions your organization uses, one thing that is clear from the work of many researches in this field, high potentials are different from high performers. Research by the Corporate Leadership Council revealed that only 29% of high performers are high potentials.

High potentials possess something more than just being high performers.  While high performers are highly effective in their current roles, high potentials possess unique capabilities that enable them to be effective in roles with broader responsibilities at higher levels of the organization.  That’s the key differentiator.

If high performance is not the singular criteria to identify high potential, what else should we be looking for? There are many well researched models and frameworks available which can help organizations define, identify and develop their high potentials. We will not be discussing the details of these models and frameworks here.   Instead, we will look at five observable traits which are common amongst high potential employees.

1. They are Larger-than-Life.  With an aura of greatness, they attract the attention of people around them with their unique persona.  This has nothing to do with titles, positions, or status but an innate capability that make people stop and listen to them.  As a result, larger-than-life personality can be highly effective in influencing others.

2. They are Enterprising.  High potentials are enterprising individuals who are full of energy and ambition. Not only are they innovative and ingenious, they are driven and excited about new and challenging situations and will take the initiative to work on them.

3. They are Executors.  High potentials are not all-talk-only people.  They are highly action-oriented and will do more than just talking and marketing their ideas. They will do everything to ensure that their ideas are coupled with actions to meet the end goals.  In other words, they mean what they said and will turn ideas into reality.

4. They are Learners.  High potentials are never satisfy with the current knowledge or skills that they possess.  They are passionately curious and thirst for new knowledge and information all the time.  These individuals never stop learning regardless of how successful they are academically, professionally, or socially. For them, the greatest enemy of learning is knowing.

5. They are Agile.  They navigate and adapt quickly to the changes around them and make sensible decisions to produce high impact results .  They have no fear for change or ambiguity and will often be the forerunner to champion change. They instinctively adjust their learning, decision-making, communication, and execution styles to the new environment so that they can continue to be productive and successful.

It seems like a tall order that a high potential needs to possess these 5 traits. Yes, indeed it is not an easy task to find employees who are high potentials, it has never been easy in the past nor will it be easier in the future.  But that is what differentiates a real high potential from a high performer. When you think of successful people in your organization or those of other organizations, very likely, they exhibit all these five common traits.   There are certainly many more traits and attributes that we should consider when identifying high potentials in addition to these five traits. Whether it is five, ten or fifteen traits that you look for in a high potential, importantly, organizations must ensure that high performers are not camouflaged to become high potentials.  They are different.  Identifying the right high potentials is crucial as it has direct impact on your resources, investment and business results.