The definitive guide to Hi-Po engagement programs

“If you want one year of prosperity, grow seeds. If you want ten years of prosperity, grow trees. If you want one hundred years of prosperity, grow people.” – Chinese proverb.

To be able to successfully transition into a 21st Century Enterprise, companies need to focus on the development of employees, who have displayed potential to assume unforeseen challenges - not just in today's business context, but tomorrow, with an aim of building future ready leaders. This is generally done through Hi-Po programs.

So here is a detailed guide that gets into the nuts and bolts of these programs:
1) Who is a Hi-Po?
2) Why do we need to have separate engagement programs for Hi-Pos?
3) 8 Best practices for Hi-Po programs
4) 7 Watchouts while designing Hi-Po programs
5) 7 Industry examples to inspire your Hi-Po Programs
6) How to plan the perfect Virtual Hi-Po program
7) Why HiPo programs sometimes fail
8) References
9) Download the definitive guide to Hi-Po engagement programs

Who is a Hi-Po?

Some employees are alluded to as Hi-Pos, an acronym for employees with ‘High Potential’. Organizations strive to identify HiPos, using established human resource management methodologies. Generally, passion is the strongest indicator of a HiPo’s brand loyalty -they stand out from those, with lower levels of engagement and commitment.

High potential employees will typically possess the following traits:
• They constantly engage with their peers and with the senior leadership of the company to understand and align their work to the business strategy and company goals.

• They constantly upskill themselves to be employable not just today, but tomorrow as well.

• They exert more effort than other employees and have a greater chance of succeeding at roles that are critical to business performance and the future leadership pipeline.

• They possess the ability to lead others because strong leaders drive the performance and effectiveness of others and help to create an environment where every employee can perform to his or her potential.

• High potentials look for ways to exceed expectations, and often produce more than what is asked. They have the aptitude, business fidelity and enthusiasm to grow and thrive through business revamps.

• They are also highly accountable; when they commit to doing something, they consistently deliver. They understand the difference between activity and productivity.

• Another strong characteristic of HiPos is their willingness to take initiative. Instead of waiting to be told what to do, they are often self-starters and do things before they’re asked.

• They typically deliver high quality work with astute execution. They neither waste resources nor exasperate co-workers. They endeavor to produce better results or make a process more efficient.

• They are respectful of and synergic with others and with the organizational culture.

Why do we need to have separate engagement programs for Hi-Pos?

A one-size-fits-all kind of approach to talent development by the management will not bring them the return on investment (ROI) that HiPo programs can bring.

Traditional methods such as a promotion or better pay have become outdated and do not work in preventing HiPos from heading for the exit. Managing top talent poorly can cripple an organization’s ability to execute the most robust of business growth strategies.

Organizations need to be telling individuals they are considered high potentials as this brings transparency to the organization’s commitment to developing talent, and can help retain them.

High Potential employees, or HiPos’ bring great value to their organization. Their contributions are as unique as their needs and demands in any development program. For example:

• HiPos are highly career-oriented and future-focused. They need to know their career-path in the organization for their forward progress – such as -development opportunities, future assignments, leadership roles, etc. Prior awareness of the knowledge areas, skills and abilities required to master each job, the number of positions available - can help HiPos envision their next steps in the organization and better communicate their immediate goals.

• HiPos crave challenges and need them to sustain their enthusiasm. They need roles /activities that test their knowledge, provide them with new learning experiences and demand higher strategic thinking.

• HiPos need to be kept highly engaged and are often looking to achieve something big and exceed expectations. To retain them, organizations need to provide the tools, resources, opportunities, and knowledge that will keep them challenged and enable their continued high performance. When these needs are not met, organizations run the risk of losing them to others, who can meet their expectations.

• HiPos need the freedom to perform without feeling micro-managed.

• They need mentorship opportunities with other HiPos and with top -management.

• HiPos seek cross-functional opportunities that provide them exhaustive knowledge of how the entire organization works.

• High potentials also possess a unique motivation and capability to succeed that others might not have to the same extent, which can sometimes lead them to get frustrated and unhappy with their progress.

8 Best practices for Hi-Po programs

1) Frequent challenges:
a. Provide them with assignments and multi-disciplinary rotational opportunities that keep them engaged to test out new skills and interact in new environments, within the organization. Expose them to a wide variety of business functions and/or geographies. Such exposure helps them assimilate a wide range of experiences and perspectives that accelerate their growth and improve their decision-making as future leaders.

2) Freedom to perform:
a. The freedom to look at problems from a new perspective, a broad mandate and flexible parameters to execute a big task, help in honing their leadership skills and empower them to perform at a higher level. Many companies report that such exercises throw light on the capabilities of the participants, who might otherwise feel compartmentalized in their assigned roles.

3) Handy resources:
a. New tools, technology or an assistant can free up high potentials to work even faster and more efficiently. Unlimited access to self-paced programs that include internal learning management systems or subscriptions to online platforms like Coursera and LinkedIn Learning, can aid them in absorbing new information and skills at a faster pace than the vast majority of employees.

4) Mentorship:
a. Exposure to senior management helps to build a deeper understanding of requisites and insights to enter broader leadership roles and provides them with visibility. They also get to hear from them directly and share their perspectives. Robust HiPo programs need to schedule regular meetings for high potentials to interact with the company’s top executives or with other successful high potentials. Some companies even create more formal interactions between senior leaders and high potentials through an official mentor program.

5) Experiential learning:
a. Cross-functional and international assignments provide new insights into different parts of the business, that move them closer to the organization’s overall strategy. This is a smart way to align the HiPos with some of the company’s most challenging issues and to think about their role in the organization in a new light.

6) Targeted training:
a. Such programs refine and build upon high potentials’ existing knowledge and skill sets. Business simulation exercises bring together high-potential participants to solve hypothetical business problems. These are typically complex challenges, and the HiPos may be asked to play the role of key stakeholders or decision makers.

7) Performance feedback:
a. HiPos are highly competitive and are always keen to get ongoing, detailed feedback about their performance and their impact, along with a candid assessment of their strengths and weaknesses.

b. At the basic level, programs should offer self-assessments (also called psychometric tests) to help participants evaluate their capabilities, preferences and behavioral styles.

c. The second level of assessment (sometimes known as 360 feedback) provides high potentials with the opportunity to receive performance feedback from supervisors, peers, reporting staff members, and customers.

d. Individual coaching is another option which pairs each high potential with a trained, experienced coach (internal or external) for a series of one-on-one sessions. The impact of this highly personalized coaching on ambitious, aspirational professionals cannot be overemphasized.

8) Networking opportunities:
a. HiPos are typically avant-garde and cherish good and supportive working relationships. They understand the importance of establishing connections - that they can capitalize on throughout their careers. Strong relationships (inside and outside the organization) will give high potentials a definitive edge-a larger pool of resources, greater access to certain individuals etc. HiPo programs that helped participants make solid connections with real business value, generally received the highest ratings.

7 Watchouts while designing Hi-Po programs

If a high-potential program is not part of a well-conceived strategy for leadership development, the main result is going to be a fabulous program for training the future leaders of your competition.

1) Make the HiPo program relevant:
a. With the CEO as head, the HiPo program gets linked directly to the business strategy of the company. Having your CEO lead the charge and putting senior executives in the front and center, sends signals to the HiPos that the program is not just empty rhetoric and that it matters, has form and is relevant.

2) Align to all four talent management activities:
a. Align the program to the mission, vision, values and policies of the company and make it integral to all four major talent management activities – Recruitment, Selection, Development/Performance Management and Succession Planning, with disciplined process management.

3) Mix your talent globally:
a. People are different and individual differences have a major impact on performance. Be inclusive and sensitive to generational differences in values, benefits and requirements. When you execute the long-term plan, draw/develop/transfer HiPos company wide.

4) Engage HiPos in your Strategies and plans:
a. Develop talent for anticipated business needs. Build mission -critical business skills in HiPos and make them ready for high profile future roles.

5) Treat your HiPos as organizational assets:
a. HiPos do not belong to any one business unit - so the interests of the organization supersede individual divisions. Career progression should not be blocked by the selfish needs of line leaders, or the organization fails to benefit from the HiPo development program.

6) Show consistent leadership integrity:
a. HiPos notice inconsistent signals. Behavior speaks more loudly than words. Communication should remain consistent, simple, dynamic and reflects engagement from committed senior leadership.

7) Make it practical:
a. Consider streamlining the HiPo programs into:
a) Early-career HiPos
b) Mid-career HiPos and
c) Senior leadership HiPos. 

b. Get clear on the experience and investment required. Avoid the temptation to make the HiPo program about learning and development rather than leading and achieving business results.

7 Industry examples to inspire your Hi-Po Programs

• At Genpact, their ex-CEO, Tiger Tyagarajan identified three behaviors that would drive the business to the next level: collaboration, digital thinking and being able to move across spectrum from concept to execution. For Genpact, HiPos need to exhibit these three behaviors and the entire selection happens around these competencies.

• In Credit Suisse, the process runs through the organization. After they identify top talent on the basis of performance/ achievement / potential ("as is" today), they measure this pool by taking them through the assessment center with the objective of assessing the individual with the competencies required for one level up. This exercise also shows the talent gaps and creates a foundation not only for identification but also for development.

• HCL may be one of the few organizations today that carries out a potential assessment of its workforce across all levels with 100 % coverage every year.

They also have Career Management Processes, where they use a methodology called “Career Connect” which allows the employees to crowdsource ideas from experts about how they can grow in their careers and assume higher levels of responsibilities. This is a great platform for many of these high potentials to play the role of mentors and guides. People can see how they (HiPos) have grown in their careers & have fulfilled their potential and get counseled on how the same can be applied to their careers.

• Prabir Jha, Global Chief People Officer at Cipla, in an interview, talks about how he personally benefitted from a HiPo program and about leveraging HiPos as employer brand ambassadors – “And when you give them an opportunity to represent the company, you send a message to the external audience that here is an organization whose leader is betting on people to come and articulate their views and ideas.”

• At Mahindra, they use the 3E approach; Education, Experience and Exposure. There are different levels basis what’s your current level is at the organization. They have largely kept the hierarchy of these levels very narrow to ensure consistency in what they are delivering.

• Ericsson uses a five-month process to identify HiPos and set up an internal talent council to do the 1st level of screening, followed by a talent board to dig deeper into each candidate and finally followed by an assessment center to validate the competencies with each candidate.

• To ensure IBM develops IBMers to their fullest potential, IBM instituted a global integrated leadership management process for identifying, assessing, developing and placing high-performing, high-potential leaders, at all levels, across the business. One of IBM’s most well-known programs is Basic Blue for IBM Leaders, which focuses on role playing and developing the emotional intelligence and coaching skills expected of an IBM manager.

How to plan the perfect Virtual Hi-Po program

HiPos are passionate and engaged and are highly driven to learn. But, before an organization can reap benefits from well-seasoned and coached workforce, they need to be trained and engaged well. In a remote work world, one of the ways to do this is through a virtual mentoring program.

Virtual mentoring draws on this passion to grow and develops their leadership skills in a virtual environment. As opposed to in-person mentoring relationships which are dependent on syncing schedules and meeting spaces; virtual meetings can happen anywhere at any time. This increases the overall participation pool, and also means high potential employees can get matched with the right mentor.

The additional advantages of virtual mentoring are:
• Convenience: Virtual mentoring makes it easier for the high potentials and busy mentors to commit to the program. Virtual meetings can be held more frequently than direct meetings which makes it more productive.

• Safer and more nurturing: HiPos need a secure place to develop and nurture their problem-solving skills and easily identify their strengths and weaknesses. With help from their mentor, virtual mentoring programs provide a supportive environment to experiment with solutions without risk.

• Diversity: A virtual mentoring program promotes a larger participant pool from diverse backgrounds. This exposes them to various ideas and thoughts enabling them to collaborate more effectively.

Before starting a virtual mentoring program, it is important to keep a few things in mind, for the program to be effective and on-track, right from the beginning.

• Create a plan: Like any other business strategy, it is important to chalk out a proper plan for the program. The goals of the program should align with the vision, mission and values of the company and should reflect the company’s expectations from them.

• Identify participants skill sets: Identify the participants and their skill-sets, so that they are paired with the right mentor. Matching the mentee with the right mentor is also crucial, as the needs of the mentee have to match with the expertise of the mentor.

• Provide training: Utilize on-line training to give participants, clarity on the objectives of the virtual mentoring program.

• Launch the program: After imparting training, launch the program officially. Ensure that the HiPos and the mentors are provided with the right tools, to make the mentorship successful.

• Keep them engaged: After the successful launch of the program, keep the mentors and mentees continuously engaged by providing them with content, that will propel the program. Host webinars, publish eBooks and design online courses that will help high potential employees develop new skills.

• Measure the success of your program: Use mentoring software, to measure how well mentors and mentees are achieving their goals. Studying reports and an evaluation of the participants will help in measuring the success of the virtual mentoring program.

Why HiPo programs sometimes fail

To retain HiPo employees, the conventional logic is simple: Identify, develop and nurture them. But experience has found that translating this into reality is much more difficult - despite the special attention and the huge investment made on them -many HiPo employees plan to leave their current companies within a year. Some of the reasons for this are:

• Managers tend to be uncomfortable with the differentiation.
They prefer to treat everyone the same, avoiding the uncomfortable process of sorting people by levels of performance. They avoid divulging the HiPos, for fear of upsetting the non-HiPos.

• Hassles with dialogue:
Even when HiPos are identified, piloting them to the next level, needs a lot of effort. Managers need to coach them, challenge them and push them beyond their comfort zones. In doing so, the manager has to engage with the senior-level, the HR team and identify opportunities for them. This causes them more anxiety and stress and causes them to hold-on to the HiPo, rather than push him forward.

• Sense of entitlement:
• Another downside of telling an employee that he is a HiPo, is that it creates in him- a sense of entitlement and arrogance. The selection process must require those nominated to think hard about their desire to make a contribution.

• Divides the workforce:
If the process of selection of HiPos is not transparent, the assumption will be made that it is a process for rewarding ‘favorites’. This causes a rift in the organization.

• Difficulty in differentiating between the high performers and high potentials:
High performers are not essentially high potentials. Just because a person can produce great results in one job does not guarantee they’ll do so consistently or when they’re promoted. High performers who aren’t high potentials are often uncomfortable when they have to deal with conflict or make tough people-decisions. Devoting a disproportionate amount of energy and resources to a select few, might also cause you to overlook the potential contributions of the many. Companies need to employ a more objective, systematic approach to identifying high potentials.

• Attenuates the core business:
High-potential programs that take leaders away from their jobs’ week after week for classroom experiences, or that create projects irrelevant to critical strategic business challenges, cost much more than the training fee. They reduce short-term business performance without indicating how they will improve longer-term output.

The bottom line
High potentials are a fundamental requirement for a high-performing culture and an organization. Programs for high-potential leaders ought to be based on a thorough understanding of current business strategy and the culture necessary for future success. If your organization has not yet crafted a HiPo program, it is high time you started working on putting one in place.

  • "I take this opportunity to appreciate you all, for the focussed approach, detailing carried out and excellence in delivery which has helped us build, the initiative of managing our high performing employees, to a new level. It is a difficult task to design an intervention for levels from an officer to an Associate General Manager, that too from varied backgrounds and locations. Your team's commitment, dedication and effective partnering with us in terms of understanding the organisational values & the desired outcome - have set unparalleled benchmarks as every batch passed by. Thank you so much for your efforts.

    It's really commendable to see how you all organize your efforts and inspired our team members to orient, channelize, present and pioneer. You were all truly amazing and demonstrated extra ordinary skills in all your activities, presentations and involvement. The way you gave tips with fun directly went to the participating employees mind and heart. In fact the last gathering of From Spark to Sparkling Reality - Coming Together and Making a Difference was a soul stirring experience for the participants. You truly uplifted the spirit of participants, and they were very energetic, enthusiastic and positively charged with a new perspective while leaving the venue.

    I am confident that these positive seeds will germinate and be nurtured to grow in coming times. Do keep up with your outstanding contribution and performance. Wish you all the best for your future endeavours."
    Shrikant Lonikar
    Head HR, Adani Ports and Special Economic Zone Ltd

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