Best Practices for Managing High Potential Employees

Topic(s): selection
Publication: Harvard Business Review (2011)
Article: How to Hang on to Your High Potentials
Authors: C. Fernández-Aráoz, B. Groysberg, N. Nohria
Reviewed by: Liz Brashier

Does your company have a succession plan? If a top executive were to walk out tomorrow, would you have someone to fill those shoes? Well, if you are like roughly 85% of North American companies, the answer here is a resounding no. Or perhaps you use a common method – a program that targets “high potential” employees. Programs like these create a steady stream of talent to ensure effective leadership.


Unfortunately, these programs don’t often work well. It is hard to select employees into these talent pipelines, and excellent employees who are not selected end up feeling excluded. Given a significant gap regarding the actual efficacy of these “high potentials programs,” the authors (Fernández-Aráoz, Groysberg, & Nohria, 2011) launched an analysis of how firms target and manage their top performers. In the course of interviewing executives from over 70 companies, the authors compiled a set of practices worth noting:

  • Align development to strategy. Make sure that your program matches your corporate strategy. Avoid a cookie-cutter approach; while certain programs might work elsewhere, your program needs to be unique to match your organization.
  • Select carefully when identifying promising candidates. Combine objective assessments with nominations from managers to increase chances of selecting the right top employees. Do not waste valuable resources on a program that fails to select the people who are the best fit.
  • Communicate honestly. Be wary of keeping selections a secret. From the employee’s perspective, the only reason to keep the selection of high potentials hush-hush is because the program is unfair and picks favorites.
  • Develop targeted employees thoughtfully. Include formal education programs, on-the-job development, and self-directed learning.
  • Rotate jobs. Put high potentials in a variety of positions that match their goals and experiences.
  • Create rewards and incentives. Being designated high potential is rewarding, but should never be the only incentive for employees to stay in a program like these. Use financial compensation – at a moderate and reasonable level – to aid in rewarding targeted employees.


Targeting and developing high potentials effectively is essential for organizational success. While the authors are quick to point out that these are not definitive “best practices,” they are worth considering.  If you do not already have these in place, adopting them may provide your organization with a greater competitive advantage in the long run.


Fernández-Aráoz, C., Groysberg, B., & Nohria, N. (2011). How to hang on to your high potentials. Harvard Business Review, 89, 76-83.