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Succession Management: What it means to be a High Potential (HIPO)

Start with High Potentials

HIPO—not to be confused with a Hippo, or being Hip.. it means high potential. It’s the term consultants and practitioners give to those who hold high potential in their future work because they’re super smart and/or hard-working and/or in some illegal incidents, good-looking.. (Yeah I went there).

The question of what makes a high potential (HIPO) a high potential may differ for each organization that seeks to answer such question. In fact, over 43% of organizations surveyed in a conference board report in 2009 believe that “assessing and identifying top talent” is one of the top two challenges they face.

More Traditional methods concentrate on identifying potential by identifying performance. For example, Workforce Management published in 2008 a report that suggested making the basis of identifying high potentials to be “performance management and career planning programs [while] comparing skill sets of potential candidates”. But, the concept of potential itself is intuitively a complex topic which takes much effort to analyze and then execute upon in an effective way.

The word potential itself is somewhat an unclear word used to describe the possibilities that an individual (for our purposes) may hold, based on a set of skills, traits or behaviors. I have been described as a high potential by many friends and associates and yet it has always been clear to me that they mean it based on different sets of identifiers. Of course, friends see me in different situations and in different social situations and generally in very different circumstances from my professional relationships. By this intuitive fact alone, how do they reach a conclusion (regardless of its accuracy) that is described to be the same? Does potential, regardless of who describes it, include any observer bias definitions?

A researcher by the name of Berke (in 2005)  illustrates, through the use of a simple annotated bibliography the process that main stream academics have used to conclude what a main identifier is when it comes to identifying high potentials. “High potentials are those people who at various points in their careers are perceived to be potential successors to those at higher organizational level” he mentions. He identifies also that organization-based competency modeling is usually the best way to identify high potentials. We assume that this is because any given environment creates constraints for any individual to work within it and thus for an individual to function as a high potential S/he must exhibit characteristics that work well within those constraints.

However, even with the development of universal characteristics, biases such as recency and primacy, halo and horn effects can come into play to misalign those models (Rothwell 2010).

Rothwell also identifies some of those universal characteristics of a high potential but does not elaborate further to explain them. It is clear that regardless of the situation, the concept of succession management is based on the ability to develop leader into positions of higher leadership. In other words, the underlying concept at play here is “development” or from the individual’s perspective—learning ability.

To support this claim, (yep it’s a claim) we look unto Lombardo and Eichinger’s article (2000) that suggests that learning agility is the key to the “potential” that exists in an individual. They propose that component make up the learning agility of an individual:

  1. “People Agility”
  2. “Results Agility”
  3. “Mental Agility”
  4. “Change Agility”

These are the four factors that determine learning capacity and agility. This of course, does not describe the full meaning of “potential” for there may be other factors in play. However, it does seem appropriate that any fundamental description of potential should include the ability to learn. Otherwise, potential simply becomes performance. I would define performance is using your existing knowledge to achieve results, but that description does not fit well as a description for potential but rather, it amplifies the significance of the future outlook that is built into the meaning of potential itself and how it used as part of succession management programs.

I can say that the literature spans many examples where potential is characterized by some learning ability or facet of development. For now, I would take that principle as the meaning to “potential”.

About The Author
Dr. Joseph A.E. Shaheen
Computational Social Scientist with a twist of network science, social network analysis, data science, and random thoughts.
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  • May 28, 2014 at 11:53 am

    You’re right that the definition of “high potential” will vary company to company. The key is getting into a company and reading the culture right to understand what that means. Best bet is to research a company’s culture and join one where your abilities match what their culture values– the perfect storm of opportunity. This is what makes researching companies so very important in the job-seeking process.

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