Are high potential programmes just vanity projects?

 In any organisation that I’ve worked in, we’ve had to handle HR budget cuts. At some points these cuts have been quite deep. Yet there was always one part of the budget that was fiercely protected by my CEOs. They’d tend to be reluctant to say goodbye to the High Potential Programme.

Of course, many leaders will see these programmes as an essential part of the succession plan. A well-trodden route for the chosen elite who will, in years to come, assume their rightful place at the board table. Often, CEOs have gone through a similar programme themselves, some might even attribute a proportion of their success to it. So they know first hand the positive role they can play.

Yet recent research has placed some doubts on the validity of these programmes. Doubts that I must admit I share. Research by CEB suggests that 73% of High Potential Programmes show neither business outcomes or achieve a return on investment.

There are a number of reasons that these programmes are flawed.

Inability to assess performance
Marcus Buckingham, in an article in the Harvard Business Review, says, “Over the last fifteen years a significant body of research has demonstrated that each of us is a disturbing unreliable rater of other people’s performance.” He refers to the Idiosyncratic Rater Effect, which shows in an example, that on average, 61% of my rating of you is a reflection of me.

We have to question whether we are really rating potential or just people who we think show promise – perhaps because they mirror our own preferences.

Filling the numbers
Then there’s the internal pressure that Hi-Po Programmes can cause. We have to fill the spaces, to demonstrate that we have an overflowing pool of talent. One of my clients was moaning about the launch of their potential programmes. “Out of 24 people, there were probably only 7 who had any real potential.” It was disheartening to hear.

That’s because places on these programmes can be awarded for spurious reasons. Perhaps an individual is considered to be a flight risk. It might be a sweetener as an alternative to a pay rise. While it is hard to convince leaders that these are not valid reasons, the exclusivity of these programmes will be damaged irreparably if they are diluted.

Hi-Po Programmes are divisive
Anointing an individual as a high potential often has a number of less than healthy consequences. They can be seen as a ‘favourite’ by their internal peer group, which can lead to isolation and even sabotage. They can buckle under the additional burden of expectation, if not well supported. Sometimes, they can become prima donnas, expecting immediate rewards and promotion.

What about the other 95%?
If you award high potential status to 5%, you will have to deal with telling the other 95% that they haven’t met the grade. Some leaders veer away from this by not announcing those who have been selected. What kind of madness is it where not even the delegates know that they’re on the programme? Back to the research by CEB that showed only a third of businesses tell the selected group they are seen as high potentials. Unfortunately, in my experience, it always leaks out fuelling the lack of trust in HR processes.

While we should question these Hi-Po Programmes, we often just try harder to make them work – to get better at identifying the selection criteria; to have more rigorous calibration sessions; to change the way we develop high potentials; or to be more disciplined about managing the talent pool for better results.

Instead of trying to make these programmes work, we should question whether they are fit for purpose and relevant for our disrupted world. I believe that it’s not a case of fixing them, but that High Potential Programmes are fundamentally flawed and these flaws are coming to the foreground because the pace and nature of work outstrips their usefulness. The real job for HR is to demonstrate to leaders who are so attached to these programmes that they are no longer fit for purpose.

It’s time for something different. It’s time for an approach to talent that reflects the real nature of the businesses we want our future talent to lead.


Lucy Adams is the author of ‘HR Disrupted: It’s time for something different’. As the ex-HRD at the BBC, Lucy brings her beliefs and practices into her work as CEO of Disruptive HR.

Published in January 2017, HR Disrupted is already a best-selling book on HR, topping the Amazon charts. Her book addresses some of the biggest challenges facing leaders and HR today and is packed with practical ways to innovate HR’s approach to leading people in a disrupted world.

www.disruptivehr.com