High Potentials: 5 Traits Companies Look For

By Barbara Frankel


“High potential” generally means an employee with an excellent performance rating who has the potential to move into the top levels of a company.

The percentage of managers considered “high potential” is small – nationally, the Society of Human Resources puts it at 4%, while DiversityInc Top 50 companies average 16% and the DiversityInc Top 10 average 25%.

What specific qualities put a manager on that list? We asked four DiversityInc Top 50 companies with established high potential programs and good track records on management retention and promotions — Cox Communications, KPMG, TD Bank and KeyCorp. Here are their recommendations:

1.   Strong Performance

“The first job is they have to perform,” said Linda Verba, Executive Vice President, Head of Service Strategy and Chair, Diversity Leadership Team  at TD Bank.  “They did something that got them rated ‘exceptional’.  Then we ask if they can continue to deliver exceptional work … We look at employees who raise their hands and have a willingness to assume additional responsibilities.”

Michelle Castleman, Director of Talent Management at Cox Communications, noted that Cox takes into account the individual’s performance over the past two years as well as current accomplishments.  “We look for consistency in their performance (and that they) include both attainable goals and mastery of competencies,” she said. “Our definition of high potentials includes individuals who have the ability to take on increased responsibility and move up or one more levels in the organization (director to vice president, or vice president to senior vice president).”

2. Team Player
Several of our sources commented on the need to be able to lead others and not just be perceived as an individual performer. Verba said high potentials have to “drive exceptional results through the efforts of others” and “select, motivate, develop and retain other high potential talent.”

3.   Executive Presence
Executive presence is generally defined as credibility, strong communication skills, good grooming, and serious preparation.  Specifics can vary at each company, depending on the culture. But virtually all high potentials have more exposure to senior leaders than other managers and are often invited to present at external programs and conference – “so they need to start with business acumen and confidence,” explained Verba.  They need to “effectively influence, at all levels of the organization with the appropriate use of executive gravitas, data and analytics.”

3.   Huge Learning Capacity
High potentials possess the ability to rapidly understand new concepts and do the hard work necessary to learn new skills quickly.  “They have a strong propensity to advance. They look for opportunities to excel and address skill or proficiency gaps by getting up to speed quickly,” said Tori Farmer, National Director, Diversity and Corporate Social Responsibility, KPMG.

“We look at their runway – how vertically can someone move in the corporation over a period of time and how can they expand their versatility,” added Brian Fishel, Senior Vice President, Chief Talent Officer, KeyCorp.

4.   They Listen to Mentors and Sponsors

High potentials cultivate the right mentors and sponsors and pay attention to what’s said about them, the companies said. “They make themselves mentor and sponsor ready,” said Farmer. “Our high potentials are often recommended through their mentors and sponsors …. They avail themselves of mentoring, coaching, leadership development, and managing career-life strategies.”

5.   Strong Values

KeyCorp’s Fishel noted that it’s important that high potentials have clear values that reflect the corporation’s.  “We look at what could trip them up and derail them and get in the way of being successful,” he said.

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