Succession Planning: Why Releasing the Names of High Potentials Is a Smart Move

Despite all of the recent talk about the need for openness and corporate transparency, there is still one area where corporations tightly hold on to secrets … revealing who is/isn’t designated as “high-potential.” According to Towers Watson’s 2011 Talent Management and Rewards survey, a scant 28% of employers let employees know their designation.

If you are a proponent of transparency, you’ll be happy to know that despite this low percentage of openness, there are many benefits associated with making managers and the high-potentials themselves aware of who is on the high-potential list for succession planning and leadership development.

The following list covers the positive benefits. (The arguments for maintaining secrets was covered last week.)

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20 Benefits of Transparency in High Potential Selection

  1. The designation motivates and increases engagement — openly recognizing the potential of individuals certainly excites and motivates the employee, and because other employees know, they will get additional reinforcement actions from your coworkers. Their manager might also feel excited, proud, and recognized because they now know that their development efforts were successful. Employee engagement may also increase as a result of your proactive action.
  2. The designation helps to reduce anxiety — during weak economic times, even high-performing employees are naturally anxious about their future. Designating an individual as high potential helps to reduce their level of anxiety and uncertainty about their future. The designation lets them know that they will be continually developed and that they will have a major role to play in the future of the organization.
  3. You can expect increased retention among HiPos — one of the primary advantages of telling HiPos of their status is to give them a sense of belonging. Being designated a HiPo is a form of recognition and accomplishment, and openness allows the firm to send a message to the individual that there is a high probability of a bright future for them. HiPos should also be made aware that should they leave this current organization and move to another, it is unlikely that, even with their outstanding track record, they will automatically receive the same “high-potential” designation until they have proven themselves. This level of rotation combined with the uncertainty should they move to another organizations helps to improve their retention rate.
  4. The designation may cause HiPos to take themselves more seriously — after being notified that they are high-potential, individuals who are not self-aware of their potential may begin to take their careers more seriously. As a result, they may increase their learning and self-development or they may even pursue advanced degrees now that they know that that development or learning will actually be put to use by the organization.
  5. Designation allows a more targeted focused use of resources — when a limited number of individuals are openly designated as high-potentials, it’s obviously easier for everyone involved to prioritize and focus their development resources and opportunities on these individuals. When the individuals’ names are kept secret, managers may devote too many development resources on individuals who are not likely to become future leaders and top performers.
  6. It is easier to develop when the employee knows why it is happening — openness makes it more likely that any development advice and recommended actions will be taken seriously because the employee involved knows that they are being groomed for possible succession. If the selected individuals are not told their status, it can be awkward having development conversations and scheduling increased levels of development without revealing the reason behind it. It is also true that when everyone involved knows the goal of the development conversation, it allows for a more direct and honest exchange about the HiPos’ weaknesses and their development needs.
  7. Keeping the names secret is hard work and openness makes everything easier — if your policy is to keep the names secret from all employees and managers, reaching that goal will be difficult and time-consuming. This is because employees are naturally curious and they will devote time to finding out who is on the list. You will need to keep secret not only the actual list of names but also the title and the invitee list of all development meetings that are designed exclusively for high-potentials.
  8. They will find out anyway — experience tells us that despite your secretive efforts, employees will eventually learn who is on the list. Even if they don’t find out for sure, they will guess, and if they guess wrong, a great deal of confusion can occur.
  9. Openness reduces the confusion over who should be a role model — if employees are aware of the HiPo designations that have been made by management, it will be much easier for them to select “the right individuals” to emulate and copy as their role models. If employees are also seeking a mentor, they now have a strong list of individuals to approach.
  10. Reinforcing your communicated values and skills — you powerfully reinforce the existing messages that you have sent to all employees and managers about what behaviors they should copy, when you designating employees with those same skill sets, behaviors, and results as high-potentials.
  11. Releasing the names reinforces the message of openness — if your organization espouses of the value of “openness” and transparency, having an open high-potential list will enforce that value.
  12. An open list increases the likelihood of diversity — having a closed list can unfortunately lead to speculation about favoritism, however when the list is open, everyone can see if you have actually practiced diversity.
  13. Openness can reinforce employees’ faith in management decision-making — if the high-potential selection process is fair, open, and accurate, it will likely select individuals who employees already admire and respect. The net result will be that your employees’ faith in management decision-making, and rewards for performance will be significantly reinforced.
  14. It can eliminate speculation by managers — in some cases, being secretive extends to most managers, who will not be told who is high-potential. Not knowing for sure may cause some managers to treat those who they presume to be HiPos differently. Taken together, being open can eliminate this inaccurate speculation, wasted time, resources, and effort.
  15. Openness will encourage managers who develop employees — with an open list, managers who have successfully developed high-potentials in the past will be rewarded as other employees gravitate toward them in the hopes of also being developed.
  16. An open list may improve promotion decisions — unless managers are provided with a HiPo list, they cannot know for sure who should be considered for a promotion. By providing every manager with a list of high-potentials, you make it much more likely that managers will include these HiPos in their interview process for promotions and development assignments. Widely distributing the list also increases the chances that they will interview “lesser-known” individuals from other business units or regions who otherwise a manager might not have known about.
  17. Knowing the high-potentials who are likely to be targeted makes it easier to focus your retention efforts — openly designating high-potentials can make them likely targets of external recruiters. However, in the same light, knowing that these individuals will be targeted may allow you to focus your retention and blocking efforts on these individuals, so that the net result may actually be a decrease in the turnover of these key employees.
  18. If you periodically remove individuals from the list, you help to reduce an entitlement mentality — having a high-potential list can help to develop a two-class mentality between HiPos and the rest. However, if employees see that individuals are periodically removed from the list, there is less of a likelihood that they will see this as a permanent class distinction. If individuals in lower job levels are also included on the high-potential list, more employees will feel that they have an opportunity development.
  19. Customers and vendors might feel more valued — openly designating HiPos will likely mean that your firm’s major customers, strategic partners, and vendors will become aware of who is on the list. If they have the opportunity to work directly with these HiPos, they are more likely to feel valued as a customer and partner.
  20. Transparency may improve your employer brand image — the fact that you have an open process and are direct and honest with your employees may build your external employer brand image and help with recruiting as employees spread the word on their external social networks.

Final Thoughts

Obviously the decision between having an open or closed list has historically been a difficult and complex one. As the practice of management and HR progresses, there has been an increasing emphasis on openness and transparency. This is partially a result of growth of the Internet and internal and external social networks, which make it incredibly easy to spread “secrets.” In addition, it has been widely reported that new generations entering the workforce have come to expect (or even demand) a dramatically higher level of transparency.

As a result of these factors, most organizations should reconsider their decision to keep most elements of their succession plans secret. Obviously there are some drawbacks to openness but I have found that all of them can be overcome if you commit your best thinkers to the problem. The pendulum is steadily shifting toward the time where the succession planning variation of “don’t ask, don’t tell” will become an historical footnote.

Dr. John Sullivan, professor, author, corporate speaker, and advisor, is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high-business-impact talent management solutions.

He’s a prolific author with over 900 articles and 10 books covering all areas of talent management. He has written over a dozen white papers, conducted over 50 webinars, dozens of workshops, and he has been featured in over 35 videos. He is an engaging corporate speaker who has excited audiences at over 300 corporations/ organizations in 30 countries on all six continents. His ideas have appeared in every major business source including the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, BusinessWeek, Fast Company, CFO, Inc., NY Times, SmartMoney, USA Today, HBR, and the Financial Times. In addition, he writes for the WSJ Experts column. He has been interviewed on CNN and the CBS and ABC nightly news, NPR, as well many local TV and radio outlets. Fast Company called him the "Michael Jordan of Hiring," called him “the father of HR metrics,” and SHRM called him “One of the industry's most respected strategists." He was selected among HR’s “Top 10 Leading Thinkers” and he was ranked No. 8 among the top 25 online influencers in talent management. He served as the Chief Talent Officer of Agilent Technologies, the HP spinoff with 43,000 employees, and he was the CEO of the Business Development Center, a minority business consulting firm in Bakersfield, California. He is currently a Professor of Management at San Francisco State (1982 – present). His articles can be found all over the Internet and on his popular website and on He lives in Pacifica, California.



6 Comments on “Succession Planning: Why Releasing the Names of High Potentials Is a Smart Move

  1. Openness becomes more comfortable and more beneficial when the HiPo designation, itself, has transparency and accountability, as well as richness in meaning.

    Among the underlying questions are: (i) “High potential for what?” (ii) “How determined?” (iii) “Along what path?” (iv) “What time frame?” and (v) “Whose responsibility?”.

    9-box performance/potential grids fall woefully short unless put into specific organizational and individual contexts and backed up with objective measurements of both performance and potential. Each determination (HiPo or not) should seek to capture the “best case” future deployment for each individual, based on their specific strengths and knowledge.

    The HiPo for CFO would likely underperform as Business Unit President and Global Sales Team Leader … and vice versa. Moreover, some of the most valuable talents will make specialists’ contributions, without C-suite titles.

  2. Thank you, Dr. Sullivan.

    Three points:
    1) With the exception of a very few corporate recruiters at large companies, succession planning is beyond the scope of recruiters’ duties (though it is a very good thing to be able to do, as it is clearly a “high-touch, high-value add, can’t no-source, through-source, or out-source $50+/hr” duty).

    2) Retention policies are directly counter to the interests of recruiters- the more retention, the less work we have to do. “There’s job security in trying to fill a sieve.”

    3)”Openness can reinforce employees’ faith in management decision-making — if the high-potential selection process is fair, open, and accurate, it will likely select individuals who employees already admire and respect. The net result will be that your employees’ faith in management decision-making, and rewards for performance will be significantly reinforced.” The key words here are
    “fair, open, and accurate”: unless the HiPos are selected by purely objective criteria, there are likely to be suspicions process, and these suspicions are likely to have a fair amount of truth to them.



  3. Transparency works best when it’s continuous throughout an employee’s tenure at an organization – it needs to start on Day One.

    Furthermore, transparency means that everyone at the organization should know how all their peers are performing. That way, even those employees who aren’t high-performers can see what they need to be doing differently.

    The Achievers platform enables managers to publicly recognize employees on a daily basis through a live recognition newsfeed. Those employees who receive the most recognition rank higher on the Leaderboard [], a key element of the platform.

    The Leaderboard enables the gamification of competition in the workplace – it’s friendly, but real, and evens the playing field.

    When the time comes for promotions, everyone will already know who the organization’s top performers are. Plus, employees will have the chance to communicate with their managers every step of the way about their performance.

    Ultimately, succession should be a element of performance management.

    Interested to hear agreement or disagreements!

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