Identifying High Potential

Identifying High Potential
Human Resources

How do you spot potential? What differentiates a high potential employee from one who has reached a career plateau? Many organizations fall into the trap of relying on past performance as a measure of future potential. Current and past performance may be an indicator of potential, but the two are not synonymous. In fact, according to a study conducted by Gartner (previously CEB/SHL Talent Measurement) only one in seven high performers are actually high potentials.[1] That means that over 85% of today’s top performers lack the critical attributes essential to success in future roles.  People who perform well in their current positions can fail miserably if they are promoted beyond their level of competence.

To more accurately identify potential, it is useful to assess an individual’s level of “learning agility”. Learning agility is the speed at which people learn and adapt to change. It is a term used to describe continuous learners who are open to exploring new ways of thinking and being. Agile learners are students of life who are able to abandon entrenched patterns and ways of operating to try new things.

The ground-breaking research in this area was undertaken by McCall, Lombardo, and Morrison (1988).[2] Their book, “Lessons of Experience,” was based on research indicating that many high performing managers who possess the technical skills required to perform their jobs effectively do not succeed when promoted. This is because they tend to rely on the skills that made them effective in their previous roles, rather than learning the new skills necessary after they had been promoted. Conversely, managers who performed successfully after promotion were more willing to extrapolate from past experience while learning new skills.

Korn/Ferry (previously Lominger,)[3] espoused that learning agility is a reliable measure of leadership potential. This is because learning agile individuals are capable of absorbing and integrating information from their experience and then extrapolating what they have learned to apply the knowledge and skills in a completely new context. The Learning Agility Model they developed is comprised of the following four components:

  1. People Agility – People who treat others respectfully, communicate effectively with diverse individuals and respond positively and resiliently under pressure.
  2. Results Agility – People who accomplish results under challenging circumstances, inspire others to do the same and exhibit a presence that builds confidence in themselves and others.
  3. Mental Agility – People who take a fresh view of problems, are comfortable dealing with ambiguity and complexity, and are capable of explaining their thinking to others.
  4. Change Agility – People who are comfortable with change, demonstrate curiosity, experiment with new approaches and constantly strive to improve themselves.

Another model often used to identify high potential was developed by SHL and Gartner. The Ability, Aspiration and Agreement Model[4] identifies the following three factors as indicators of high potential:

  1. Aspiration – to advance to more senior roles and take on more complex responsibilities. This is influenced by how driven and motivated an individual is and the extent to which they desire recognition and influence.
  2. Ability – to perform effectively in more senior roles. This is based on a combination of innate characteristics, (including cognitive agility and emotional intelligence) and acquired experience (including technical/functional knowledge and interpersonal skills.)
  3. Engagement – a commitment to remain in the organization and to take on greater challenges. Engagement is comprised of 4 separate elements. These are: emotional commitment (the extent to which an employee values and believes in the organization); rational commitment (the degree to which an employee believes that it’s in his or her own best interest to remain in the organization); arbitrary effort (the employee’s willingness to do more than what is required); and, intention to stay (the desire of the employee to remain with the organization.)

The Learning Agility Model and the Ability, Aspiration and Agreement Model are both useful frameworks to help identify potential and either one will work. What is important is to agree on the model your organization is using and to be clear on what potential means. To identify potential, the use of assessment data can be useful to identify high potential performers. Assessment support could include:

  • Competency-based assessments – Can include self-assessment, behavioural interviews by a trained assessor, or performance of simulated activities in an assessment centre.
  • Personality measures – Provide important insight into an individual’s overall fit within a role and the challenges he/she may face over the long term.
  • Cognitive ability measures – Measure aptitude and critical thinking skills essential for executive roles where problems are ambiguous and require the ability to quickly analyze data and draw inferences with limited information.

When assessing potential, it is critical to avoid single-manager evaluation bias. This can be accomplished by conducting roundtable discussions with the broader leadership team where the performance and potential of staff members gets openly discussed and calibrated. As part of this conversation, many organizations make use of the nine-box methodology to visually represent where individuals fall relative to performance and potential.

The key thing to remember is that we need to differentiate between performance and potential. The more energy we invest in conducting a fulsome assessment of potential, the more likely it is that we will effectively identify and develop the leaders of tomorrow.

About the Author

Diane Locke

Diane Locke is the lead facilitator for the Queen’s IRC Talent Management program. Diane Locke is a senior partner at a Toronto-based human resource management consultancy. She has more than 20 years of experience in the areas of executive assessment, leadership development and talent management, including both internal and external consulting roles. Diane has worked with best in class organizations to design, develop and implement succession planning and talent management processes.  She has been actively involved in the use of assessment tools and strategies to identify and develop high potential.  She has provided training, coaching, and consulting services to a broad range of organizations in the public and private sectors.



[1] CEB/SHL Talent Measurement. (2014). The HR Guide to Identifying High Potential.  Retrieved March 25, 2019, from

[2] McCall, M.W., Lombardo, M. M., & Morrison, A. M. (1988).  The lessons of experience:  How successful executives develop on the job.  Lexington, Mass Lexington Books.

[3] De Meuse, K., Hallenbeck, G., Dai, G., Tang, K.Y. (2009). Using Learning Agility to Identify High Potentials Around the World. Los Angeles:  Korn/Ferry Institute. Retrieved March 25, 2019, from

[4] CEB/SHL Talent Measurement. (2014). The HR Guide to Identifying High Potential.  Retrieved March 25, 2019, from



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