What Science Says About Identifying The Best Education And Training Staff

There has been a lot more interest recently in how organisations can identify high potential employees as early as possible, especially as hiring the wrong person can be a very costly mistake. This, plus increasingly limited budgets, is causing employers to become more selective about who they hire. High potential employees are the ideal because the more potential they have, the quicker and cheaper it is to develop them and reap the rewards.

What are they?

Often, high potential, or HiPo, employees are confused with the high performers, and often this is the criteria that they are chosen for promotion or further training. What sets the HiPos apart from the typical top performer is that they boost the effectiveness of the rest of their team through modelling and sharing good practice – by as much as 15%! – rather than just achieving individually. Simply put, HiPos are the leaders of tomorrow, which is why it is vital they are identified early on in order to maximise their potential and ensure they don’t end up working elsewhere.

It is also important that the top performers are not mistaken for HiPos because it means missing out on those who would be great leaders, letting talent slip through your fingers and also causing employees to think their career is on track when it isn’t, or wasting their true potential. It seems to be a common misconception however, as the CEB report that only one in six of top performers have the critical attributes essential for success in the more complex and senior roles. HBR.org also found that around 40% of the individuals in HiPo training programmes were actually below average.

This is not to say that the top performers are valueless. They’re not. They have many valuable qualities, such as technical and professional expertise, trust gained through honouring commitments, and the ability to fit into the culture of the organisation and to take the initiative. They are top performers because they are capable of delivering results but they are likely to be lacking in the strategic vision or ability to motivate others which sets the HiPos and effective leaders apart.

What does science say about them?

Scientific studies suggest that these individuals generally share similar, measurable characteristics, which should make identifying them all the easier.


HiPos have the skills and knowledge needed to perform the key tasks which make up the job role, but, even more importantly, they also have the ability to learn and master more in order to excel in bigger and more complex job roles.

Alongside technical and professional skills, they must have effective social skills, particularly those relating to team work and collaboration. They must be able to manage themselves in times of stress and pressure and also manage their relationships with others in a positive way.


A factor which is often missed is a HiPo’s level of engagement. They must believe in and be committed to you and your mission/vision. In a new hire, you’re looking for someone who seems to have, or has the ability to develop, a personal connection to your organisation and your vision.

3. Drive

This can be defined as the will and motivation to work hard and achieve, the desire for recognition and advancement, and the inability to remain satisfied with one’s achievements. HBR.org describe its importance regarding identifying HiPos as “potential is talent multiplied by drive”.

How can you find them?

The first step to identifying HiPos is to ensure you have clear criteria to use – it needs to be the same both interviewing prospective employees and also current ones, and it needs to be measurable. One of the most common issues in terms of identifying HiPos has been the lack of a clear set of standards with which to identify them. Instead, decision-makers have based their judgements on their own perceptions of what is important or necessary, and these naturally vary. Using the above information about the three main markers of high potential, think carefully about the sort of individuals you are looking for and which characteristics are essential.

Once you have these criteria, make sure you use direct and pointed questions during the interview process to ensure you have all available information from which to form a decision. Use a range of assessment tools to make certain your data is varied and accurate. For example, the best way to test skills and knowledge is a work-sample test, a cognitive ability test could help identify those with the ability to learn new skills quickly and apply them, while a psychometric test should reveal a candidate’s emotional intelligence.

To increase your chances of correctly identifying HiPos, consider a two-pronged approach: interview the candidates (both the prospective and current employees) but also interview the managers who have worked with them and see if your opinions are validated by theirs. Have they proven themselves? Have they demonstrated a high work ethic, problem solving skills, or the ability to find solutions which satisfy conflicting interests? Have they managed to establish and maintain positive working relationships with their colleagues and started to build networks?

How does this affect FE?

HiPos are vital to every organisation because they lead to effective managers and senior leaders, effective policies and procedures, and effective teams, which, as we know, are all imperative to our students’ achievements.

At the leader and senior leader level, HiPos will be motivating and inspiring their teams to develop their collective best practice, work collaboratively, and offer their students excellent learning environments in which to excel. They will be found in classrooms motivating and inspiring their students to achieve their goals, maximise their potential and raise their ambitions. They will be the teachers everyone wants to observe and learn from, as they will model and share excellent practice. At the highest level they will be ensuring their whole department/service is the best it can be, with everyone working together and working hard to provide an excellent education with fab results and feedback consistently.

HiPos are essential for maintaining excellent exam results, boosting staff performance, leading innovation and striving forwards towards academic and educational excellence.

Supporting resources

For research into ‘star performers’ (HiPos), their characteristics and their value, read: http://hermanaguinis.com/PPsych2014.pdf

For research into assessment tools, please read: https://www.uam.es/personal_pdi/psicologia/pei/diferencias/Hunter1984JobPerformance.pdf

For research into emotional intelligence and how to assess it accurately: http://psycnet.apa.org/record/2016-45865-001

For information on creating criteria for and successfully identifying HiPos, you could read: www.peopletalentsolutions.com/knowledge/WP%20High%20Potential%20Employees.pdf

For more information on CEB’s research and services:


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