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HIPO programs suck

High-potential program don't work, and we should stop pretending they do.

5 min read



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There. I said it. High-potential programs suck. I thought about being less direct and more refined in describing how I feel about most “high-potential” programs.

Maybe I could make S-U-C-K a clever acronym for Stupid, Unfair, Counterproductive, and Kindless? But kindless isn’t a word, and I couldn’t find another appropriate K-word to describe programs geared to promote an elite group of employees who have been identified as up-and-comers. So, I decided to describe it as I see it: HIPO programs need to be eliminated or overhauled.

Most HIPO programs are designed to improve productivity and build bench strength. Well-meaning HR professionals with limited budgets for developing people are encouraged by research claiming that the top 5% of employees are worth the investment because they are most likely to reach positions of responsibility and power.

Evidently, data points to HIPOs producing 91% more valuable work for the company, as they exert 21% more effort than non-HIPOs. But, data also shows that 93% of HIPO programs fail. Success seems to boil down to refining your process: identify better HIPOs, externally benchmark against the competition and give them better development opportunities.

I say hogwash. And here’s why.

If you’re not a HIPO, what are you?

Supposedly, 1 out of 7 employees are HIPOs. That means six of every seven employees are low-potentials. Ask such LOPOs how they feel about HIPO programs, and you’re likely to hear words such as “demoralized,” “abandoned” and “disconnected.” If someone’s confidence is holding them back, not being selected as a HIPO is a nail in their self-esteem coffin. If a LOPO was prone to using discretionary effort on behalf of the organization, demonstrate citizenship behaviors, endorse the organization or perform at above-expected standards — intentions of an employee with work passion — you can almost bet those good intentions have evaporated.

What I find even more telling is how HIPOs feel about their elite status. In interviews, HIPOs have expressed feeling confused, embarrassed and, oftentimes, unworthy. They are thrust into a position of status that stimulates suboptimal motivation —when you are motivated by status, you can’t experience the sense of relatedness, belonging and connection that human beings need to flourish.

It’s a matter of justice

Ask HIPOs why they were selected over their peers, and most of them can’t tell you. Ask the powerful people what criteria they used to select HIPOs and they most likely don’t know. Often, the process consists of managers getting in a room and picking people they like, or people like them. Neither HIPOs nor LOPOs feel the process that selected them (or weeded them out) was fair or just.

What makes you a HIPO and me a LOPO?

Consulting companies who want to sell you assessments to better identify HIPOs, claim they know how to help you select the best of the best. For example, make sure a candidate has a drive for results or is motivated by the power to exercise, influence and shape how things are done. What they fail to consider is the candidate’s reason for being driven or why they desire power.

Assessing drive and energy without understanding the values underlying a person’s drive is one reason we keep getting organizational leaders who are willing to ignore higher-based values in pursuit of the bottom line. We need to reconsider what good leadership looks like and the values we want from those in positions of leadership.

3 potential fixes to HIPO programs that suck

I believe in developing people. What I don’t believe in is an arbitrary selection process that results in an elitist group that does more harm than good, is devoid of fairness, and doesn’t take into consideration the science of human motivation or employee work passion. I hope you might consider these alternatives.

Change the name. Having a select group of people who are high-potentials automatically classifies a much larger group of low-potentials. If you need to call a program something, consider a more aspirational, transcendent and values-based name.

Be transparent. Clarify the criteria and communicate the skills, ability, mindset and motivational values you believe are necessary to be both an effective transactional manager and a transformational leader. Describe a robust process with the implications for the time and dedication required to participate and succeed in the program.

Give people the choice. After clarifying and communicating the criteria and process, open the program up to all employees. Allow leadership to emerge from people who raise their hands for the job. Be sure to ask why they are raising their hand. If they are interested in power, more money or status, help them identify higher-level values. If they are interested in growth, learning, being of service or searching for excellence, help them embrace their values consciously. If you have too many hands and need to choose from a group of enrollees, be clear about why a person gets chosen. If someone is not chosen, be honest about why and offer a development plan.

Whether you are a HIPO, LOPO or the person who determines who’s in or who’s out, I hope you’ll begin advocating for a transparent, fair, and robust process for developing leaders with the values required to nurture organizations where people flourish. When it comes to developing leaders, we can’t afford programs that suck.


Susan Fowler is the co-author of the newly revised “Self Leadership and The One Minute Manager” with Ken Blanchard and Laurence Hawkins, and lead developer of The Ken Blanchard Companies’ Self Leadership product line. She is also the author of the bestseller “Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work… and What Does.” Fowler is a senior consulting partner at The Ken Blanchard Cos. and a professor in the Master of Science in Executive Leadership Program at the University of San Diego.

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