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HIPOs: Overworked and Under-Challenged

HIPOs: Overworked and Under-Challenged


Bersin by Deloitte defines “high-potential employees” as employees who have been identified as having the potential, ability, and aspiration for successive leadership positions within the company. While this seems clear enough on its face, every organization will have its own definition—shaped by its specific needs and goals—of what effective leadership looks, sounds, and feels like

Many organizations begin to create strategies for attracting, identifying, and retaining high-potential employees without first defining what high potential actually means and how to recognize it. Normally, organization should recognize 3 major components (Fig-1) while defining HIPOs which somehow not taken care by many companies.

Figure-1: Components for definition of a High Potential



Further, how organization identify HIPOs varies depends upon maturity level of organization, industry in which it operates & the overall culture (Fig -2).

Figure-2: Rates of HIPOs assessment & identification methods used


During this decade many companies careered & struggled to identify high potentials. Companies who have well defined matured practice of HIPOs identification are now mystifying with “What to do with HIPOs?”. Suddenly, Organizational strategist, consultants & HR became owner of their career. They tried to apply to many innovative practices to groom them as future leaders and sometime became their career owner. Few would agree that this is right.

The need for organizations to grow and retain high-potential talent has never been greater, but if the company’s stars feel over- or underwhelmed, performance will lag.

The squeeze is still on for top talent as organizations grapple with change initiatives, downsizing, early retirements and leaner workforces. According to Tom Searcy, founder and CEO of sales strategy company Hunt Big Sales, it’s causing some effective high-potential employees to disengage.

Key Questions?

  1. HIPOs to be over challenged or overworked.
  2. HIPOs are highly paid and hence could be used for maintaining sustainable employment cost through manning unstaffed jobs.
  3. In absence of favorable work condition HIPOs are likely to move
  4. HIPOs will remain HIPOs for ever


People can be over-challenged or under-challenged. Both of those things are dangerous.

Over-challenged can be about things besides their job — they can be overburdened because of family issues, financial issues, health issues, organizational requirements, or they can be burdened because of the loss of another employee. Their area is understaffed, they’re given something they’re not skilled in doing or given poor directions. They feel overburdened. Because of that, where they used to be great and doing a super job, all of a sudden, bang, we see mistakes. They never missed a meeting, appointment or forgot an assignment; all of a sudden those things start to happen. Part of it could be that there is too much going on.

The second thing is, you have good performers, they’re doing a good job, but they start to become under-challenged. What I find with under-challenged people is that they get as distracted by the lack of things that are going on and miss meetings, appointments and deadlines. Mistakes happen just as much because their minds turn off. The part of the brain that the job was challenging when they first took it on, and they were very good, it starts to say, “This is rote and boring and doesn’t appeal to me,” and their creative brain or detail-oriented brain shuts off.

Is it more common that the individual is overwhelmed or underwhelmed?

Right now, both aforementioned circumstances could happen. Organizations are trying to right-size their businesses; they are pulling out layers and layers of people, which means more responsibilities are left on those who remain with the company. People are under-challenged — more challenged about stuff they care less about, so they make mistakes — or they have more work that is beyond their capability, so they make mistakes

As crazy it sounds, people are overworked and under-challenged. That’s the No. 1 issue right now. More executives are being burdened with task-level assignments rather than more strategic assignments.




What should leaders do when their go-to person becomes less reliable?

For me, the first thing is to say, “What is it inside this person’s world over the course of a window, let’s say 30 to 90 days, that has changed that could have overburdened or under-challenged them?” Something has changed. If you don’t know, you can ask, but you may know. There are limits to the questions you can ask, but extrapolate that something is happening outside of their work environment that’s causing these circumstances to happen.

Once you figure out what has changed, the second thing to do is determine, “Is there a way for me to help that person and help them think through their workload, responsibilities and circumstances so they can get through this rough period and still perform at an adequate level or above-adequate level for the benefit of the business?”

The third thing I encourage people to do is get these employees into specific, shorter-measurement cycles. If I had a highly talented person and I was used to letting them go for 30 days, giving them assignments and projects for 30 days and letting them run, I need to rope that back into two-week windows or one-week windows for a period of time until they’re back on their feet and my confidence has been recovered in them.


First, understand that instead of moving toward punishment based on failure to perform, try to understand what happened. This is the part that’s so odd. If you’ve got a real hitter who’s not hitting anymore, they didn’t get dumb or indifferent overnight. The first thing they can do is diagnose what happened.

After they’ve done the diagnostic part, they have to look at all the circumstances and say, “Can we shift job responsibilities for a period of time? Can we adjust hours for a period of time? Is it appropriate for a leave to happen at this point? Is there a career path we could put this person on?

Talent managers’ job is to think beyond the job description. Their job is to think about talent. The job description tells us what the person is doing now and is supposed to do; it doesn’t tell us what the person is capable of. One of the talent manager’s roles is to figure out what talent is capable of. It might be different after we’ve passed through this rough spot.

As a talent manager, do you build a staircase opportunity for your best people? Is there a career path for them? The light will burn out if they’re not aspiring to something. When you hire someone, part of your responsibility is to say, “Here are the stair steps you have to take, and here is what success looks like at each stair step.” What I find organizations do is they provide an org chart and say, “Work hard, and you’ll move up the ladder.”

High-quality talent managers establish a staircase with measures so the person is always working toward something. That doesn’t mean everyone wants to be promoted, but most of your high-performing people do want challenges, even if their desire is to stay in the role they’re in for a long period of time. Just doing the same thing again and again is usually not enough.

Mistakes we do:-Three common mistakes companies make that discourage high-potential employees.

For the last several years most high-potential employees (HIPOs) have lowered their career expectations to accommodate slowing promotion rates and developmental opportunities.

Simultaneously, according to Corporate Executive Board’s 2012 Global Labor Market Survey, companies have asked their HIPOs to put forth more effort. HIPOs are 50 percent more likely to have taken on additional responsibilities in the last three years compared to their peers and work close to eight hours more per week than non-HIPOs.

As the labor market shows signs of life, organizations that continue to ask more of their stars without a corresponding increase in rewards may drive them away. There are three common mistakes that companies are making:

What could be appropriate measures?

Delegating HIPO management downward: HIPOs are 15 percent more likely to say they have an ineffective manager compared to non-HIPOs. Further, more than half of HIPOs expect to be working for a different manager in 12 months. The combination of disruption and ineffectiveness stunts HIPOs’ growth and increases their likelihood of departure. Thus companies needs to rotate HIPOs while addressing its fast changing business demand/need.

Adequate HIPO differentiation and recognition: With limited rewards available, most companies have tried to evenly spread them in an attempt to make all employees happy. This doesn’t work with HIPOs. The importance of recognizing HIPOs for their contributions has increased by 15 percent during couple of years. Thus companies have to come with innovative reward mechanism of HIPOs which suits appropriately to culture.

More HIPOs’ exposure to corporate strategy: HIPOs are aware of their organization’s health and direction. They want a voice in defining that direction. Limiting their exposure to senior leaders disenfranchises HIPOs and limits senior leaders’ ability to accurately assess bench strength, which can lead to poor promotion decisions or forged Succession Planning. Thus HIPOs should be exposed to Corporate Strategy irrespective of where they are posted /deputed and at what level/role.




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