The Problem with “High Potentials” Development Programs


Divvying up the learning and development budget across an organization is no exception to all investments. Business leaders must be mindful of the amount of risk they assume in order to play in favor of a strong ROI. 

But when it comes to investing in peoples’ development — and ultimately, their futures — traditional risk management can be highly vulnerable to biases.

Such is the case with “high potentials” (frequently abbreviated as HiPo) development programs, wherein particular employees are earmarked for success by their supervisors, and thus awarded more resources for strengthening and advancing their skills.

Where HiPo Development Goes Wrong

Although from a budget perspective, putting the company’s eggs in the most promising basket seems intuitive, zooming out with consideration for the racial and gender-based discrimination that has long-influenced the corporate landscape, the term “high potential” can easily cloak biases toward a preconceived image of what “a successful leader” looks like. 

In theory, high potential employees are hard-workers, dedicated to the company’s mission, and eager to grow their unique leadership skills. But in practice, those who earn the coveted HiPo tag are likely already projecting or demonstrating the capacities that will continue to serve them well throughout their tenure.

Put simply: business leaders tend to confuse high potential with high performance (and/or high likeness to current leaders’ identities)

This level of social privilege is also rarely something of which employees are not already self-aware. Thus, hand-picking A+ performers to join a network with shinier resources and executive mentorship opportunities tends to inflate already swollen egos, and leave those with a social disadvantage (despite their true potential) disheartened.

“High Potentials” and Social Currency

In a recent Harvard Business Review piece titled “Leaders, Stop Rewarding Toxic Rockstars,” Deepa Purushothaman and Lisen Stromberg tie the notion of the “high potential employee” to a sort of “boys club” mentality that for decades has marginalized women of color, and now further weakens efforts to retain diverse talent in large companies. 

No strangers to the justifications behind investing more time to retain and develop “promising” employees, they offered the following in consideration of revenue impact when power-checking such groups:

Sure, toxic rock stars can and do deliver today. However, the long-term impact of these culture bullies on attrition, employee engagement, productivity, and employer branding can’t be ignored. Part of the challenge stems from the old-school “boys club” mentality, where toxic rock stars are protected at the expense of diverse talent and toxic cultures get reinforced at the expense of the company’s reputation and bottom line. But in today’s world, leaders are being challenged to change the way they lead, and when they don’t — or can’t — adapt, they risk their own careers and the success of their companies.”

In short: high performance is only one factor in calculating the bottom line. Business leaders must also ask: is this employee’s cost to company culture (and the price tag of attrition) actually offset by their revenue contributions?

Of course, not all HiPos will succumb to an ego trip, but this is something worthy of analysis, if only to examine which behaviors and leadership styles are already rewarded in a company, and to question: do we really want to continue elevating this behavior, or is a new perspective overdue?

Hand-Picking HiPos

Unfortunately, when it comes to HiPo development programs, this bigger picture is rarely factored in. In global studies by Corporate Research Forum (cited here in Forbes), 73% of companies who identified high potential employees did so primarily through the course of a single criteria rating or supervisor nomination. 

The same studies reflect an overall sense of failure for the majority of organizations implementing high potentials development programs, which perhaps goes without saying. 

Alas, if “potential” was defined through a broader, more accurate lens — in conversation with the potential of the company overall, and its potential downfalls — a return on investment in developing talent would not just be reflected in revenue, but in improvements to employee retention, diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Alternatives to High Potentials Development Programs

The question remains: if designating HiPos isn’t the right investment, then what is? How do business leaders allocate their learning and development budget mindfully, and equitably? 

Here are three viable alternatives….

1. Mentorship Programs

Requiring few resources (albeit a fair bit of coordination), internal mentorship programs mimic the 1:1 guidance that many high potential employees would traditionally reap. Pairing more senior employees with entry- or mid-level counterparts can inspire growth, connectivity, and more diverse leadership perspectives through two-way thought exchange. 

Making the program elective also helps to identify employees with actual potential (i.e., interest in growing their careers). That said, mentor programs can sometimes be prone to the same biases inherent to the HiPo model, so leveraging a third-party or tech solution to handle facilitation, mentor vetting, and accountability measures may be a wise investment.

2. Manager Training

Talent development should be a manager’s chief concern, but unfortunately, many new (or seasoned) in this role were never taught how to properly cultivate unique strengths, passions, and leadership potential to build the company’s generational pipeline. Dedicating resources to middle management has trickle-down effects on the entire workforce. 

3. Scalable Leadership Training

The high potentials model for employee development was created primarily to help business leaders be lean with their resources. Most quality training programs are costly, and therefore only feasibly deliverable to a handful of employees. But new models, like The Forem’s Level Up: Career Advancement program and development platform, are changing this narrative. 

High-quality, virtually uncapped cohort training can be delivered across time zones and job functions, creating a shared sense of community and empowerment throughout the entirety of the workforce.


Interested in bringing scalable, equitable talent development to your organization? Schedule a demo of The Forem’s platform or programs here.