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How To Spot High Potential Employees — And How To Keep Them

Employees are a company’s most valuable asset, so it should always be a priority to create an environment that encourages the team to give it their all, for however long they’re with you.

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Sparta SystemsSparta Systems

Unwanted turnover is the universal dread of managers everywhere, regardless of industry. No company leader wants to spend valuable time and resources training a new employee — only to have that person walk out the door a few months later.

But this is especially true when it comes to employees with great potential: the ones who were genuinely contributing to growth, the ones who could have conceivably taken on leadership positions.

These employees are called high-potential employees (HIPOs), and while every company has them, not every company knows how to recognize them. When an organization is lacking a system to leverage and invest in the value HIPOs have to offer, it runs the risk of losing them to the phenomenon known as ‘browning out’.

Having coined the term, Michael Kibler of Harvard Business Review explains that workers who are experiencing ‘brownout’ usually don’t show any signs that they’re in crisis. Although these employees continue to perform at high levels, in reality, they’re “operating in a silent state of continual overwhelm,” where “the predictable consequence is disengagement.”

This hits even closer to home for those in manufacturing. While the numbers show the industry is in a slow but steady period of growth, studies also suggest the skills gap is growing along with it. Now more than ever, manufacturers need to be able to recognize HIPOs, and how to invest in the value they bring to their organizations — if they want to keep them around.

But to appropriately harness the power of HIPOs, you need to know who they are. So, how do you identify HIPOs in the first place?

Recognizing Your HIPOs

According to CEB, it boils down to a balance of three key factors: Aspiration, Ability and Engagement.


Basically, HIPO employees have to want it.

High-potential employees need to have the ambition and desire to move up in the company. They can be your top performer, but if they don’t have the inner drive to move into a more influential role and have a greater impact on the organization, they may not be with you in the long-run regardless. 


This means going beyond the job description. True HIPOs are able to balance performance and humanity — the ability to achieve goals, while still embodying a sense of people-to-people connectivity. An individual too focused on performance can certainly drive results, but while they hit goals and do well from a performance standpoint, they could also rate low in terms of leadership effectiveness.

HIPOs are able to deliver on set performance goals, while inspiring others around them to do the same.  


Employee engagement is a popular topic today, and for good reason. Engagement, and its antithesis — disengagement — are contagious, and both have a direct impact on performance. Individuals who are engaged at work focus on solutions, go above and beyond for their organization, communicate clearly, and are friendly and encouraging, being an overall positive influence on others.

While HIPOs tend to be engaged at work, understanding their engagement levels is critical when it comes to keeping them engaged.

Getting Ahead of Employee Brownout

When a great employee abruptly leaves, the same question is often asked: “What more could we have done?”

First, understand that you won’t be able to keep every employee. It’s not realistic, nor is it healthy. Brownout is challenging, as it’s not easily noticeable, and since employees leave companies for any number of reasons, it isn’t necessarily a sign of poor culture. However, it does present an opportunity to better understand your employees’ needs, and motivation for contributing at work.

This responsibility rests with managers — from the C-suite down to mid-level managers. It’s their job to foster trust, and create an environment that encourages people to stay. To do so, managers need to embrace ‘the 3 Rs’— three elements that have the greatest impact on employee engagement:

  • Respect: respect the employee for who they are and what they do
  • Relevance: help them see the meaning in their work
  • Relationship: foster positive relationships with coworkers, especially direct managers

With the 3 Rs as a base, there are a few steps managers can take when building the right environment to nurture HIPOs:

  1. Identify your HIPOs and let them know that they’re on the company’s radar. If you have an official leadership role or succession plan for them in mind, start a conversation about it. 
  2. Build a relationship with them and understand their objectives — whether it be career-oriented or personal. Find out how the path you envision for them can align with their own aspirations.
  3. Acknowledge the good work they do through consistent recognition, so they understand what they’re doing well (others will learn as a result, too!)
  4. Keep lines of communication open so you can work through moments where brownout may be occurring.

While you might accomplish all of these, the reality is that all companies lose good people eventually. That’s fine in some cases, as long as they’re leaving for reasons that are best for them and they’re still talking positively about you. So when the unavoidable does happen, take steps to ensure it doesn’t affect the rest of your employees:

  • Provide them with an experience they’ll talk positively about
  • Do whatever you can to support their decision
  • Shape an exit interview process so you get accurate feedback on the decision to leave

The most important thing to keep in mind is that overcoming brownout is about sustaining your employee base, and doing whatever needs to be done to get managers to take direct action on the issue. Employees are a company’s most valuable asset, so it should always be a priority to create an environment that encourages the team to give it their all, for however long they’re with you.

Gregg Lederman is the Founder & CEO of Brand Integrity.

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