The Difference Between High Potentials and High Performers

Bill Gates once said "Take my 20 best people, and virtually overnight, Microsoft becomes a mediocre company." Maintaining high-performing talent is a critical organizational competency at all times. Today I'll suggest some strategies for identifying different types of high performers and accommodating their needs.

The first step in this process is differentiating between high-potentials and high-performers. The retention and development strategies that you use with each will differ.

Sitting in their cubicles, these two may look pretty much the same. They’re both top producers, they’re technically sound and they’re both hard-working and loyal. If you assign them a project you know it will be done right and it will come in on time and on budget - under budget if you’re lucky.

The key difference is in the need for challenge and rewards.

While both want more challenge, high-potentials place high value on greater authority, responsibility for others, status and, of course, more money. It’s important that they see themselves as moving up the ladder.

High-performers, on the other hand, will seek more challenge within their area of expertise. Authority and responsibility for others is not a motivational driver as they prefer consensus when making decisions and, to them, a promotion is not a reward.

But here’s the kicker: high performers may not realize this until it is too late. I was told a story that illustrates this perfectly. This person was a great project manager and happily accepted the offer to run the IT department for his entire company. He soon realized that the extra stress wasn’t worth the extra money, but, not being a quitter, he kept plugging away for almost two years. Finally he sucked it up, asked for his old job back and is still doing it a decade later. But often things don’t end so amicably.

Companies need to employ a more objective, systematic approach to identifying high potentials. Just because a person can produce great results in one job does not guarantee they’ll do so when they’re promoted (don't forget the Peter Principle).

Assessment tools like McQuaig can help because certain personality types or behavioral profiles are more likely to be high potentials. It comes down to whether they’re more goal–oriented and competitive, versus being more of an accommodating team player; and whether they’re naturally more independent and self-directed versus compliant and detail-oriented. Those falling into the former grouping of those two areas will have a desire to run the show and to accept the risks and the rewards that come with it.

Whereas high performers who aren’t high potentials are often uncomfortable when they have to deal with conflict or make difficult people decisions.

Being aware of this knowledge is critical when determining the reward and development strategies for these two similar, but distinct groups.


Posted by Ian Cameron