Many of the most successful companies maintain High Potential (HiPo) programs to identify, train, and prepare the employees who they feel will become the leaders of tomorrow. These programs can be amazing opportunities for the individuals in them. For those on the outside, there’s a feeling of being left out and undervalued.
To be blunt, it can feel like you are just not good enough.
But are HiPo programs a meaningful measure of success and potential? Is your career done when you are overlooked for such programs at work?
There’s a Fundamental Flaw in the Typical HiPo Program
Before you start refreshing your resume with one foot out the door, it’s important to consider why missing out on the HiPo program is not the end of the world.
A large number of HiPo programs are generally flawed for one reason: They measure performance rather than potential.
It’s a common mistake made by some businesses. Just because an employee has performed above their current position, it doesn’t necessarily correlate to potential for leadership, management, or other high-level areas of the business.
This can lead to employers wasting resources on talent that doesn’t end up panning out. It can also disadvantage employees selected for HiPo programs. If they fail to achieve the results that a HiPo program implies, they could lose confidence in their own abilities. Individuals who don’t succeed in a HiPo program may even find themselves cast aside and passed over for future opportunities.
What Do the Statistics Say About HiPo Programs?
We can look to some solid research data to show that HiPo programs, at least as they exist today, don’t always work.
According to Gartner Research, 73% of programs don’t provide any meaningful return on investment, but this doesn’t suggest that they don’t work altogether. In the companies that get things right, HiPo can result in employees that exert 21% more effort than those outside of a program.
One reason that companies fail to realize meaningful benefits is that they lack analytics to track progress and make decisions. 27% don’t measure the effect of HiPo engagement, while 21% don’t even measure retention of employees who enter a program.
Keeping it All in Perspective
It’s important to stress that missing out on a HiPo program isn’t a real reflection of your current ability or future potential. Managers that choose employees for the programs typically have a bias for those who most reflect their own qualities and perceived strengths.
Jessica Jobes, the founder of marketing company Mint CRO, shared some of her own experiences in an interesting blog post. She never made it into the HiPo group while employed at Microsoft, but was praised, given promotions, and received company awards. There are countless similar cases to be found in every organization.
HiPo doesn’t necessarily guarantee or reflect success. If you miss out, make it a strength and aim to differentiate yourself in other ways. As Cypriot sailor, Pavlos Kontides, who finished last in one of his first ever Laser races early in his career and then became the first Cypriot athlete ever to win an Olympic medal for his country, said recently when addressing kids at a local primary school, "if people don't know how good you are then use it to your advantage. You should challenge yourself, work hard in silence and prove them wrong." He was, in other words, prompting the kids to do what professionals who miss out on HiPo programmes should be doing i.e. to be patient and put in the extra hours to perfect their skills and make strides when it comes to their craft.
The new generation of employees aren’t strictly focused on making their way up the corporate ladder in a single company. They move laterally to develop robust skillsets and are more fluid in the job market. The Gig Economy means that talented freelancers don’t have to rely on arbitrary metrics and the decisions of line managers to achieve success.
Don’t take it the wrong way. A lot of HiPo programs work. Many employees make great use of them and go on to become excellent leaders.
At the same time, don’t build your confidence around whether you are selected. If you aren’t in the HiPo program, then sometimes that may be an opportunity in itself.