HR Leaders Define the Characteristics of High-Potential Talent

Published: Sep 19, 2017
Modified: Apr 20, 2023


What is the number one characteristic you look for when identifying high-potential talent?

Eighty HR professionals answered this question during breakfast events in San Francisco and New York City hosted by American Management Association (AMA Enterprise) in 2016. The events included panel discussions focused on “Navigating a Talent Development Roadmap,” during which executives from AMA, BioMarin, Pitney Bowes, Sharp, Simpson Thacher, and others shared their experiences.

At each event, attendees were asked to write down the characteristic they most often look for in high potentials (HiPos). The most common trait listed in both cities was “agility,” followed by “curiosity.” Thirty-five traits were posted and only five appeared multiple times, exposing the breadth of priorities among attendees.

Why agility?

As highlighted throughout the discussions, agility is a common trait valued by leaders across geographies. Panelists emphasized the importance of an employee’s ability to adapt to and evolve with the everchanging, fast-paced world of commerce. However, some expressed that agility is actually a secondary trait displayed in HiPos; to be agile suggests that one must embody certain prerequisite characteristics.

Barbara Zung, Vice President of Global Talent Management at AMA, looks for curiosity, passion, and motivation when identifying HiPos. In her experience, “if someone displays curiosity, half the battle is won. Skill is important, but curiosity is much more vital. The biggest challenge is reigniting that passion, and curiosity is one vessel through which it can be accomplished.” Zung suggests that motivation is intrinsic in HiPos and is the bedrock on which agility is formed.

Shveta Miglani, Learning and Development Manager at Palo Alto Networks, suggests that the impetus behind the development of agility is one’s desire to be a lifelong learner. “They must have an open mindset and be open to learning,” says Miglani. “They should also have a desire to develop others.” She suggests that “if a HiPo’s desired outcome is to rise through the ranks, the desire for self-promotion should be in equal status with the desire to leave a path of strong leaders behind you. Coaching is a tactical way to help someone foster agility.”

Panelist Steve Bartomioli, Vice President of Learning and Development at Pitney Bowes, looks for passion when identifying HiPos. According to Bartomioli, if core competencies are the standard for performance, then passion is what breathes life into the competencies, allowing the individual to rise above the standard to HiPo. “There is a difference between high potential and high performer,” says Bartomioli. “High performers are really good at what they do, and we need them to attain business objectives. But passion is what allows someone to go beyond today’s definition of high performance, to transition toward what the future really needs, and elevate themselves to high potential.”

Agility, Bartomioli says, “is the combination of resilience and self-awareness that leads to insight about what is required in the future. Reflectiveness enables one to evaluate what actually changed and ask: How do I integrate that into who I am and what I need to do in the future?”

There is no exact science to identifying HiPos, especially since the lines are often closely blurred with the standards for high performance. However, HR leaders suggest that there are some qualifiers that help bring clarity to these lines. HiPos are typically identified because their actions in the workplace are setting them above the rest. However, these actions are fueled by a foundational appetite for more. HiPos are curious, passionate, motivated, and lifelong learners. Allow these traits to flourish, and you will unlock their highest potential.

Contributing author, Paul Quigley, of Profitable Ideas Exchange, is a facilitator on behalf of American Management Association. In this role, he manages and facilitates the AMA CLO Exchange and AMA’s Breakfast Briefing Series: How to Navigate a Talent Development Roadmap.