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High Performing Vs. High Potential Employees

High Performing Vs. High Potential Employees

‘High performing’ and ‘high potential’ are both undoubtedly positive attributes in an employee. Yet they are not one and the same – and failing to accurately distinguish between the two can be costly. Separating your high performers from your high potentials is a critical exercise when looking at things like bench strength and succession management. So, what is the difference between the two? Let’s start by defining them both.

High performing employees

Characteristics of high performers

  • High performers stand out as those who consistently exceed targets.
  • High performers are always able to tackle difficult problems, and can be relied upon to “get the job done”.
  • High performers may not have the potential – nor the desire – to flourish in a more advanced role.

High potential employees

Characteristics of high potentials

  • A high potential might be the brilliant salesperson who regularly exceeds sales targets, yet struggles when promoted to a more senior, people management-focused role with a broader scope.
  • A high potential may not be known for their role-specific competency.  While they demonstrate the base-level competency needed for their role, they aren’t the A+ workers.
  • A high potential demonstrates other positive – ‘softer’ – attributes, such as status and innate leadership qualities such as assuming responsibility for others.

Both employee types are invaluable – but failing to recognise the difference can lead to the wrong career paths for both. This in turn can lead to disengagement and poses a retention threat.

What this tells us, therefore, is that leaders must re-think the way they traditionally assess employee success. While it’s absolutely right that high performers should be nurtured and rewarded, performance should not be the only metric by which employees are assessed – particularly for employers looking to develop a solid leadership pipeline. Attributes should be recognised, and values frameworks provided to leaders so that they can recognise potential leadership attributes early on. One of the reasons high potential candidates are so difficult to identify is that managers are not trained to recognise them.

Separating your high performers from your high potentials

Establishing a framework of competencies for both groups is the starting point.

Figure 1 provides a framework for identifying the typical traits of performance vs potential.[1]

High Performance


  • Regularly exceeds expectations
  • Lacks skills for success at higher level
  • Sets standard of excellence in role
  • Model leadership candidate
Low Performance


  • Little-to-no aptitude
  • Weak, unsatisfactory performance
  • Above-average aptitude
  • Inconsistent performance
Low Potential High Potential


After establishing which classification the employee fits best, individual plans can be formulated – as each group will require a different development approach. For example, those in the high potential/low performance group may need to be upskilled in their ability to perform more consistently. Whereas a high-performing, low potential employee may benefit from a soft skills course or leadership training.

Of course, and though less common, there is the elusive but highly sought-after high performing and high potential employee – and such high value individuals should naturally have special trajectories developed for them. Those in the low performance, high potential quadrant, however, should still be encouraged to strive towards higher performance; while high performing, low potential candidates should be continuously encouraged and given challenging assignments.

High potential employees must be told they are high potential and involved in decision making, with clear goals set for them – potentially across different departments – and their aspirations should be aligned with organisational goals.

Have the conversation with employees

Regardless of how an employee’s competencies are assessed by a manager, having conversations in performance reviews about an individual’s aspirations at the company, in which managers can ask about desired career path, is a good way of rooting out which employees desire a leadership role, leaving no room for incorrect assumptions. Of course, just because an employee desires a certain path does not mean they are ready/hold the skills to perform in one – but it’s helpful to have conversations early on so that both employer and employee visions are aligned.

Using HR technology that acts as one single source of truth for employee data will provide at-a-glance insights into employees’ performance and strengths, enabling a more informed talent planning approach. Read more about ELMO’s Performance Management and Succession Management solutions.

ELMO Software provides innovative cloud HR and payroll technology to organisations across Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. ELMO helps you to automate and streamline your HR & payroll operations across the employee lifecycle from ‘hire to retire’. This includes recruitment, onboarding, performance management, succession management, learning & development, pay, rostering / time & attendance, and more. For further information on any ELMO solution, please contact us.

[1] LinkedIn, High Potentials Vs High Performers, 2015