Seven traits that mark out high-potential employees

Dr Amanda Potter and Jo Dunne discuss how to identify the people who could transform your organisation

HR professionals have long spoken about the so-called ‘war for talent’, and in the UK this looks set to escalate in the wake of Brexit and the resulting talent shortages predicted by some commentators.

More than ever, businesses need to invest in their future survival and growth by developing their existing employees. But how do you spot those most likely to succeed? First, you need to know what you are looking for: many people use the terms ‘talent’, ‘readiness’ and ‘potential’ interchangeably. In fact they are very different and should each be assessed and understood for different reasons:

Talent: an individual’s unique combination of strengths.

Readiness: the suitability for a person to step up to the next position, in terms of behaviours and skills.

Potential: the level of fit with the organisation’s future requirements, in terms of the way they interact and their knowledge, values, aspirations, engagement and intelligence.

Here are seven key traits that will help you spot high-potential employees, which are estimated to account for only between 3 and 5 per cent of companies’ high-performing staff:

1. Behaviours

This is possibly one of the easiest traits to spot, as desirable behaviour usually falls within the traditional competency requirements of a role. High-potential employees typically know how to learn, work well with others, are creative and, most importantly, are capable in unusual as well as familiar circumstances.

2. Expertise

This is another traditional competency trait; high-potential employees clearly must have the right skills combination to thrive in their current role. Importantly though, they should also display the skills that fit well with the future requirements of the organisation.

But high-potential employees cannot be identified on the basic competencies of behaviour and expertise alone: what you really want is an employee who will work well in the future. These are the people who are more likely to be productive and engaged over the longer term, and help the business to grow.

3. Strengths

Also known as ‘energisers’, strengths are the things that we do well and find motivating. High-potential individuals have a clear understanding of what energises and excites them at work. They actively seek cultures, environments and activities that play to their strengths, giving them the opportunity to be the best they can be. If employees’ strengths are identified and aligned to what the business needs, their engagement, passion and belief in the company is more likely to grow, and positively affect productivity.

4. Tenets

High-potential employees will have personal values that broadly match the corporate values of the company. Research has shown that the degree to which an individual identifies with an organisation has a large impact on work motivation, performance and longevity. Those with high organisational identity or cultural fit have increased motivation and task performance, compared to those with low cultural fit (Van Knippenberg, 2001).

5. Aspirations

You need to look for individuals with a clear understanding of their long-term goals and ideas for the future. These aspirations should have some common ground with the long-term goals of the organisation; if they do not share your aspirations – for example, they work to live and you want people to live to work – then you’ll have a static employee.

6. Engagement

While many of your current high potentials are already likely to display high levels of engagement, BeTalent’s research shows that high performers tend to be more committed and engaged when they have a clear career pathway. Demonstrating organisational commitment to development activities can help transform some high performers into high potentials.

7. Intelligence

There are three types of intelligence to consider: cognitive, emotional and social.

Cognitive intelligence includes commonly assessed abilities such as learning agility and creative problem-solving. However, a high-potential employee will excel not only in these areas, but also in emotional and social intelligence. High-potential individuals are emotionally intelligent in several ways, including: having an awareness of their strengths and weaknesses; taking responsibility for their actions and not putting the blame on others; and being resilient and optimistic in the face of adversity. Social intelligence is shown through trust in themselves and others, and being able to anticipate how colleagues and clients may feel in certain situations.

Once you’ve identified high-potential employees, it’s important to remember that these people are all individuals, and would benefit from a personalised approach to development. A recent report from PA Consulting Group, What Talent Wants, recommends putting high-potential staff into ‘talent interest groups’ based on their different motivations and aspirations. The investment of time and energy in taking this personalised approach is likely to pay dividends in the future.

Dr Amanda Potter is CEO of BeTalent. Jo Dunne is a people and talent expert at PA Consulting Group