ATD Blog

Why Is There So Much Focus on High Potentials?

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Recently, I went to two conferences where everyone was talking about high potentials. This got me wondering about why there’s such a strong focus on them and the implications of this focus, which began to disturb me.

High potentials seem to be the focus because they’re expected to eventually provide a disproportionate amount of the value of an organization. Organizations are worried about their future and perceive that their high potentials are the best source of their long-term need for talent.

On the surface, this seems to be a reasonable approach: “We’ll need lots of great people, so let's develop the people who seem to have the greatest potential.”

Focusing so intensely on high potentials, seemingly to the exclusion of others, is traditional and old-world thinking about talent. It is based on the assumption that high potentials are born, not developed, and it takes for granted that distinguishing the potential winners in an organization from the probable losers is a good thing. It is anticipating a hierarchical organization with the high potentials rising to the top of the org chart.

Our experience, though, is that focusing so intensely on high potentials may not actually be a productive strategy.


First, it somewhat arbitrarily narrows your pool of potential leaders. Limiting the pool so drastically reduces the depth and quality of the available talent pool.

Second, what happens to the people who are left out of the high potential pool? They are now explicitly not high potential. This lowers expectations for all of the others—and the literature on expectations is clear that people perform to expectations. Lowering expectations for the majority of people is likely to have a major negative impact on the overall success of the organization.


So why not treat everyone as a high potential? One of the likely objections is that developmental programs have limited space, so seats have to be prioritized. Another objection may be that you don't want to dilute the intensity of developmental programs with less motivated people.

The new science of learning makes these concerns obsolete. It’s possible and sensible to treat everyone as having extraordinary potential, creating a larger talent pool and giving everyone a chance to thrive.

To develop your entire talent pool as though it is high potentials, define and develop a broad collective purpose in the organization. Have everyone develop a path to mastery. Work collaboratively to achieve organizational greatness.

By expecting everyone to be great, and using the newest science to give everyone the opportunity to fully develop their greatness, organizations are far better off than focusing on a limited pool of designated "high potentials." 

About the Author

William Seidman is a recognized thought leader and expert on how to develop and sustain high-performing organizations. In particular, he is renowned for understanding the processes required to discover and use expert wisdom to create extraordinary organizational performance. William holds a doctorate from Stanford University, where he spent eight years studying management decision making. As part of his doctoral dissertation, he developed a groundbreaking technique for analyzing management decision making. The technique is the core of Strategy to Action methodology and has been recognized by KMWorld, The Innovation Center, IDC, and others.

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