Hiring & Recruiting, Internal Recruiting & Workforce Planning

Research Unveils Markers for HiPo Candidates

In today’s competitive job market, high potential (HiPo) employees are even more of a Holy Grail than they normally are. That’s because research consistently shows that a small percentage of the workforce drives a large portion of organizational outcomes. And those star employees are multipliers, too, boosting the performance of their colleagues—especially their direct reports—by modeling winning behaviors.

Source: Todd Warnock / Getty

So say researchers Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, Seymour Adler, and Robert B. Kaiser in an article on a Harvard Business Review blog. But they also say that too many employers focus on candidates and employees’ potential for individual career success (as defined, for example, by the potential to move up two levels in 5 years) when determining who is HiPo.

According to the researchers, an individual’s ability to advance his or her own career is no guarantee that the employee will make a critical contribution to the organization. In fact, they say, most organizational leaders don’t have a positive effect on their teams and organizations, even those who have individual accomplishments to boast.

Chamorro-Premuzic, Adler, and Kaiser compared research on predictors of job performance with the qualities in highest demand for today’s workforce and identified three key indicators of a high potential to drive organizational performance.

  1. Ability. Can the individual actually do the job in question? For many jobs, the best predictor of ability is a work sample test, where you observe the candidate performing the job tasks.

When assessing potential to excel in a bigger, more complex job in the future, the focus is on the candidate’s ability to learn and master the requisite knowledge and skill, though. The best predictor of this type of ability is IQ or cognitive ability, as well as motivation to pick up new knowledge or skills quickly. When it comes to evaluating the potential for executive leadership, early indicators include creativity and a knack for systems thinking.

  1. Social skills. Social skills have become more important in light of the growing significance of teamwork and collaboration in the workplace. The researchers say the number one reason for “manager derailment” is relationship problems.

Social skills involve the ability to manage both yourself and others. Managing yourself requires the ability to handle increased pressure, deal constructively with adversity, and act with dignity and integrity. To manage others, you must be able to establish and maintain cooperative working relationships, build a broad network of contacts and form alliances, and be influential and persuasive with a variety of stakeholders. Those in senior roles also need to develop sophisticated political skills—reading an audience, decoding unspoken rules, and finding mutually satisfactory solutions.

It comes down to emotional intelligence. Psychometric tests can assess emotional intelligence, which can be further refined through training and development.

  1. Drive. This refers to the will and motivation to work hard, achieve, and get the job done. As the researchers put it, ability and social skills can be considered talent, but potential is talent multiplied by drive because drive determines how much ability and social skills are put to use.

Drive can be assessed via standardized tests that measure conscientiousness, achievement, motivation, and ambition. Behavior is another indicator—how hard an individual works, willingness to take on extra duties and assignments, eagerness for more responsiveness, and even readiness to sacrifice (for example, by relocating).

When HR homes in on these three characteristics, it will be more likely to land those star employees who make a true difference in the company’s long-term success.