How Can We Better Understand and Develop Employees’ Potential?

One of the keys to talent retention and business growth is identifying high-potential employees and developing them to move into critical roles.

Developing high-potentials is the number-two priority for leadership development in 2021, according to Brandon Hall Group’s HCM Outlook 2021 Study, with 48% of organizations planning moderate or heavy investment in time and money. Unfortunately, only 15% of organizations believe their managers are objective evaluators of employee potential.

Manager Performance in Developing Employees

Most organizations rely substantially on performance evaluation to identify high-potentials. While performance evaluations aren’t exactly a strength in most organizations, employers are twice as confident in their managers as objective raters of performance than they are in their managers’ ability to evaluate potential.

The problem is that performance alone is not a strong predictor of potential. Performance only tells us what employees have done or are doing in a specific role. By itself, performance tells us little about their likelihood for success in different roles, either as a leader or an individual contributor.

There are many ways performance data can give a false picture of potential. For example, the person could be a perfect fit for a particular role but have few skills — or aspirations — beyond it. Conversely, the employee might not find the current role interesting or challenging and is not highly engaged, so their performance is perfunctory or worse. But that does not mean the person doesn’t have the capabilities and aspirations for a different role that better fits her or his capabilities and interests.

Identifying potential is not an exact science but managers have much more tools at their disposal to assess potential than they are using.

An overreliance on performance to assess potential means organizations identify many people without high potential as high-potentials.

Top Reasons Leaders Lack Competencies to Drive Business Goals

• What are the qualities employees and leaders must have to make our organization successful in the post-COVID world?

• How do we do a better job identifying high-potentials?

• How do we build a pipeline of high-potential employees who can become the leaders and experts we need to drive business results?

Organizations should assess potential in three ways: Capacity/Ability; Aspiration; Engagement

Assessing all three areas is critical but most organizations can only address capacity/ability. That’s because it is the easiest to correlate with performance and address through traditional learning and development approaches.


Ability certainly includes performance, which demonstrates at least some — but not necessarily all — of a person’s capacity. The employee may have other capabilities that do not show in job performance but might be a great fit for another role. For example, someone may have high emotional intelligence that you have not assessed for or that is not easily demonstrated in the person’s current role. Or they may have technology or analytics skills or education that could be leveraged in another role. All organizations have employees with hidden abilities that can be discovered.


Aspiration is important because it helps determine whether the person’s interests and objectives align with the organization’s goals and needs. Employees’ career ambitions are important to know and understand, but their aspirations outside of work are also important because they could impact their career goals and their level of engagement.


Engagement is vitally important to consider. Whether someone is great at their current job or only good or average, engagement is an important indicator of potential. For example, high-potentials must have an appetite to tackle challenges and high-pressure situations, contribute beyond their specific job roles, collaborate well with others, be curious and take the initiative to drive change and innovation.

Getting beyond ability to understand someone’s aspirations and engagement levels requires managers to connect regularly and effectively with their employees. Manager-employee check-in meetings are an effective tool for this, but most managers don’t hold them frequently enough or engage employees beyond checking on deliverables and near-term priorities, our research shows.

Check-ins must be frequent and used to coach, provide feedback, set and revise goals as needed, recognize strong performance and have discussions that, over time, can provide managers with detailed insight into employees’ capabilities, aspirations and engagement. That provides a strong picture of potential and enables managers and organizations to determine the level of investment in each person’s development.

Complimentary Research – Organizational Assessment on Leadership Readiness (Tool To Use)

Having ready and willing leaders capable of fulfilling the organization’s business goals is a competitive advantage and critical for ongoing business success. This tool enables you to benchmark the approaches your organization takes towards assessment practices.

Download Tool: Organizational Assessment on Leadership Readiness


Brandon Hall Group Strategy Briefs answer the critical questions learning, talent, HR and business leaders must address to manage their human capital. To tackle these critical questions in more detail, we built tools, frameworks, research summaries and business builders based on up-to-date research and case studies for you to implement best and next Human Capital Management (HCM) practices. To gain access to these valuable resources, contact [email protected].

Leading minds in HCM choose Brandon Hall Group to help them build future-proof employee-development plans for the new era. For more than 27 years, we have empowered, recognized and certified excellence in organizations around the world, influencing the development of over 10,000,000 associates and executives.

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Mike Cooke

Chief Executive Officer of Brandon Hall Group Mike Cooke Prior to joining Brandon Hall Group, Mike Cooke was the Chief Executive Officer and co-founder of AC Growth. Mike held leadership and executive positions for the majority of his career, at which he was responsible for steering sales and marketing teams to drive results and profitability. His background includes more than 15 years of experience in sales, marketing, management, and operations in the research, consulting, software and technology industries. Mike has extensive experience in sales, marketing and management having worked for several early high-growth emerging businesses and has implemented technology systems to support various critical sales, finance, marketing and client service functions. He is especially skilled in organizing the sales and service strategy to fully support a company’s growth strategy. The concept of growth was an absolute to Mike and a motivator in starting AC Growth, in order to help organizations achieve research driven results. Most recently, Mike was the VP and General Manager of Field Operations at Bersin & Associates, a global analyst and consulting services firm focused on all areas of enterprise learning, talent management and talent acquisition. Tasked with leading the company’s global expansion, Mike led all sales operations worldwide. During Mike’s tenure, the company has grown into a multi-national firm, conducting business in over 45 countries with over 4,500 multi-national organizations. Mike started his career at MicroVideo Learning Systems in 1992, eventually holding a senior management position and leading all corporate sales before founding Dynamic Minds. Mike was CEO and Co-Founder of Dynamic Minds, a custom developer of software programs, working with clients like Goldman Sachs, Prentice Hall, McGraw Hill and Merrill Lynch. Also, Mike worked for Oddcast, a leading provider of customer experience and marketing solutions, where he held a senior management position leading the company into new markets across various industries. Mike also serves on the Advisory Board for Carbon Solutions America, an independent sustainability consulting and carbon management firm that specializes in the design and implementation of greenhouse reduction and sustainability plans as well as managing the generation of carbon and renewal energy and energy efficiency credits. Mike attended University of Phoenix, studying Business Administration and Finance. He has also completed executive training at the Chicago Graduate School of Business in Chicago, IL.

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