What does high potential mean for the 'average' employee?

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When some people think of high potential, they think of high flyers, great leaders and fantastic success stories. High potential is sometimes seen as the preserve of only a few percent of the population - the elite performers.

High potential is actually a term that can be applied to everyone. Someone may be a high potential leader, while someone else might be a high potential salesperson, mechanic, researcher, promoter or teacher. As we discuss in the latest edition of High Potential: How to Spot, Manage and Develop Talented People at Work (2018), potential is about this question: the potential to do what?

In our first book launch hosted by Thomas International, one of the first questions asked during the author Q&A was: "It’s all very well and good to talk about high potential leaders, but what does high potential mean to the ordinary employee?"

The answer is that high potential is extraordinarily relevant to every person in the workplace. High potential is not just a matter of finding top talent; it’s also a matter of high potential for every employee, every position in the company. Businesses do not just run on charismatic leaders and a small minority of performers - that is just one type of potential.

Good leaders know that high potential in some positions means having reliable, consistent people who perform well every day at work. Often the people who do their jobs well every day go unnoticed; the importance of their work is only noticed when something goes wrong. For example, a reliable administrative assistance, IT professional or aircraft mechanic can also be understood in the context of high potential. Often the highly important potential to be a consistent, reliable and worker in these positions is undervalued, but the company relies on their potential to do their best work just as much (or sometimes more) than their manager.

Potential describes the ranges from best to worst possible levels of performance in a specific job. It is the possible trajectory of what a person has the capacity to do in the future. It describes the link between past performance and future success [see Fig.1].

Fig 1. Potential Trajectory

Potential is partly a matter of individual differences and personality traits (see here for a more detailed description of the personality traits and how they affect potential at work). Potential is also dependent on things outside of a person’s control. The office environment, the abilities and style of colleagues, job resources and many other factors can affect a person’s potential. A person may be highly intelligent and motivated to learn, but be refused training and development opportunities.

Potential is not a guaranteed path, but really is a probability of reaching a certain level of performance. High potential does not look the same for everyone, but every employee does have the potential for their performance to improve or decline. It is variable and will be affected by internal factors like personality and external factors like circumstance and the interaction between internal and external factors. There are a range of possible trajectories.

An uppermost limit of potential always exists, and finding the right job resources, development opportunities and training will bring that person closer to their own high potential. A lowermost level of potential also exists. A potential 'floor' where even the most intelligent and conscientious employees can end up if their talents, their potential ability is ignored.

5 [potentially] key points:​

1.  Potential reflects cultural and organisational values. High potential will exist between teams, departments and organisations. Is the most valuable employee the most competitive or the most collaborative? That is a value judgement.

2.  High potential eventually leads to specific outcomes. Whilst high potential can be different for different people, ultimately it can be defined. High potential is a likelihood of achieving a certain level of performance.

3.  Potential is specific to certain jobs and domains. Defining potential means defining the job, and the performance criteria. Just because someone is a high performing entertainer does not necessarily mean they are a high potential scientist.

4.  Multiple factors influence potential including biology, psychology, social and cultural groups. There is no single measure of potential, but different factors like personality and intelligence are pieces of the potential puzzle.

5.  Potential is relative. High potential exists only relative to moderate and low potential and validity. Baseline levels of performance and potential are different person-to-person and the highest and lowest potential is, by its very nature, rare.

Interested in learning more? The second edition of Ian MacRae & Adrian Furnham’s book High Potential: How to Spot Manage and Develop Talented People provides a guide to high potential in the workplace and is out NOW! 

Ian MacRae

Ian MacRae

Ian has been an organisational psychology consultant for over a decade and is the director and co-founder of High Potential Psychology Ltd. He is the co-author of High Potential: How to Spot Manage and Develop Talented People at Work and the High Potential Trait Indicator (HPTI), a measure of leadership potential, which is available to Thomas clients.