You’ve probably heard the term high-potential, or HI PO, thrown around at your company when talking about compensation, or promotions, or when water cooler discussions turn to the topic of who senior management is putting on the fast track. Being a HI PO is a great thing for a career. It is a designation, more often made informally, that indicates who the company is betting on to become their future rock stars. There is an expectation, or at least a hope, that these folks will eventually lead the company.
Companies define “high-potential” differently depending on their size, and the level of sophistication of their talent management systems. (See our articles on The Four Stages of Talent Management for more on that topic). Companies who are serious about making their people and culture are a competitive advantage often have as many as three tiers of high potential employees, one for early career employees who the company believes can move up and do more and potentially become an executive; a second tier for more seasoned employees who the company believes can play an important senior leadership role, and a third in which identifies individuals who can lead the company in C level roles.
Generally, a HI PO is someone who would be able to successfully move up one full level (i.e. from a manager to a director) or sometimes two full levels (from Director to Senior VP, for example). When a company designates you a HI PO there are often benefits that are meant to accelerate your development and rewards and recognition meant to keep you at the company.
As important as HI PO status is, you may not know for sure that you carry the designation. Most companies decide not to tell their HI POs that they’re considered a HI PO. So, you may not know. Plus, we hear from people all of the time who thought things were going great only to find out their boss wants to put them on a performance improvement plan. It’s not always clear how work is viewed by those in charge, whether the company is betting on you, or whether that thing that went wrong 2 years ago still haunts you.
The secrecy around the high potential list is something we can debate, but if your company isn’t transparent about whether you are a HI PO, how can you tell if you are on it? You’ve got to figure it out for yourself, which is why we’ve made this helpful list for you:

  1. Attention

There are a couple of ways this will manifest, but if you are getting attention from senior executives (or the CEO), that no one else at your level is, there’s probably a reason. Let’s be clear, these folks don’t have time to spend with the duds. This can take the form of one-on-one meetings and them showing interest not only in your work but your career and interests outside of work. They may want to know about your long-term career plans and aspirations. You may get a mentor, and the more senior the mentor, the more likely you are considered high potential. This kind of attention will not be like the perfunctory meetings that are part of some program, if you’re a HI PO this attention won’t have a “check the box” quality.

  1. Investment

In addition to more attention (which might be more difficult to gauge concretely), the amount of investment in you is a great way to get a sense of your HI PO status. This investment might mean you get a higher than average base pay bump, or you are put in a specialized bonus pool or you receive additional stock options.
Making sure that the company doesn’t lose you to a competitor sometimes takes the form of offers to pay for executive education, an MBA program, or an awesome Spectacular at Work executive coach.

  1. Moving/ Rotation

Another way to tell if you are a high potential is if you are put in a position to broaden your business knowledge and diversify your skill set. This means you may move out of your current role and into a part of the company that allows you to grow your macro view of the organization, which is exciting but also a little scary. These moves can help you learn new skills, build new relationships, and connect the dots of how the company works, but it also means you have to learn to be successful with a whole new group of people and build a new knowledge set. These developmental assignments allow the company to see how you learn and perform outside of the area that made you a high performer in the first place. It gets you to test and build new skills as well. Companies who do this well tend to be ahead of the game when it comes to people development because it’s a common practice in a well-designed succession planning process for senior roles.

Identifying your high potentials is one of the most important things your company can do to ensure a solid bench of future leaders right for your unique culture. Plus, the more they invest in you, the more likely you are to invest in them. It’s a win-win.

John Philbin

John is a co-founder of Happy Work Spectacular Life who, if he wasn't helping people with their careers, would consider himself a ghost researcher. His claim to fame is that he is a champion race walker (he actually came in second place).