From High Potential to High Performance: 5 Hard Skills for Increased Focus and Productivity

The pattern of being designed as having high potential, followed by increased responsibility, followed by catastrophic failure is surprisingly common. The key for high-potential employees is to stay focused on the right priorities and learn how to manage their time.

Aaron was an intelligent, likeable, and engaged client rep for a Fortune 100 company. As a new hire, he handled his accounts with finesse and poise. Managers saw his potential and gave him additional accounts. As he continued to excel, they gave him more. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when it happened, but within a year of being recognized as a high-potential employee (HIPO), Aaron crashed and burned. He began missing deadlines, fumbling accounts, and failing to perform. He was transferred to another team and given fewer responsibilities within one year.

Bianca’s performance followed a similar trajectory. She entered the company as an event coordinator, was quickly promoted to event planning, and soon was the director of Marketing Events. But her performance couldn’t match her potential. She managed to pull things off, until she didn’t. Her performance cratered. Within a year, her management team let her go.

This pattern of high potential, followed by increased responsibility, followed by catastrophic failure is surprisingly common. Our study of more than 1,000 professionals shows:

  • 70 percent of managers have at least one HIPO at risk of getting let go.
  • 88 percent of managers have at least one HIPO who doesn’t live up to his or her potential.
  • 96 percent of peers have at least one HIPO teammate who regularly fails to meet performance standards.
  • 48 percent managers estimate each underperforming HIPO costs the organization more than $25,000.

What Makes A HIPO

What exactly are the characteristics that elevate an employee to HIPO status? According to the managers in our study, there are many ways a person can become a HIPO. Any of the following skills is enough: exceptional decision-making skills, technical skills, analytical skills, interpersonal/people skills, communication skills, teamwork skills, or time-management skills.

However, while there are many paths to becoming a HIPO, HIPO failures all follow the same path. The managers in our study say they:

  • Struggle to stay focused on the right priorities.
  • Fail to communicate or avoid surprises in their workday or responsibilities.
  • Miss deadlines.

We asked survey participants to explain these failures:

  • 52 percent of managers said HIPOs have too many different projects and are spread too thin. They struggle to keep all the balls in the air.
  • 37 percent of managers said HIPOs occupy their time with busywork instead of getting to more meaningful work.
  • 34 percent of managers said HIPOs have strong technical skills but poor organizational or priority-management skills.

It looks as if HIPO failure is mostly a failure of their productivity practices. The practices they’ve used to succeed in the past aren’t up to the new challenges they face at work. As a result, tasks and priorities get misplaced, lost, or forgotten. Surprises blindside them and deadlines are missed.

How can HIPOs reclaim their lost potential? The key is for HIPOs to stay focused on the right priorities and learn how to manage their time. Here are a few skills both HIPOs and managers can use to ensure performance matches potential.

Skills for HIPOs:

  1. Collect everything that owns your attention. Capture all commitments, tasks, ideas, and projects rather than keeping them in your head. Use just a few “capture tools” you keep with you all the time such as notebooks, apps, e-mail, etc. You can’t renegotiate agreements you don’t remember you made—so capture them.
  2. Decide what your stuff means to you. Clarify if the items you’ve captured have an action or not. If they do, be clear about what the VERY next action is and who should take it; don’t let things you’ve captured remain undecided for more than a day or two.
  3. Use the two-minute rule. If an action can be completed in two minutes or less, do it immediately. Don’t defer. The time you’ll waste letting these simple actions occupy your attention and to-do list is not worth it—two minutes becomes your efficiency cutoff.
  4. Do more of the right things by reflecting in the right moments. When new commitments come into your world, capture them and then take two minutes later in the day to review your calendar and your action lists in relation to the new commitment. This reflection ensures you make the best decisions about how to use your time and what’s most important.
  5. Review weekly. Keep a sacred, non-negotiable meeting with yourself every week to re-sync, get current and align your daily work and projects with your higher-level priorities.

Skills for Managers:

  1. Establish regular priority reviews. Project management tools focus on executing individual projects rather than on making tradeoffs among projects. This becomes a trap for HIPOs who double down on current projects instead of evaluating a range of priorities when they run into trouble. Establish both calendared (weekly, monthly, etc.) and critical-event reviews with your HIPOs to review priorities and progress both regularly and when priorities or projects are at risk.
  2. Align and update your own priorities. Everyone, including leaders, manages multiple, often conflicting, priorities. If a leader’s priorities are off track, the problem will cascade to employees. Maintain frequent and high-quality communication with your up-line to review and update leaders’ priorities. Drive out any divergence in plans before they reach your HIPOs.
  3. Renegotiate. Hone your skills to renegotiate your agreements. It does leaders no good to keep saying, “Yes,” when the likelihood of some failure is 100 percent. If you regularly review, you’ll see imbalances and know when to speak up and what data to use.
  4. Improve productivity. This study suggests the most common reason HIPOs fail is a lack of productivity skills. So, provide training and support. The commonsense methodology captured in Getting Things Done (GTD) Training is one example of a system that helps people improve the way they manage their workload. Research shows those who employ the GTD practices are 68 percent more productive than those who don’t and their stress levels were cut in half.

David Maxfield is a New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for business performance. He leads the Research function at VitalSmarts, a corporate training and leadership development company. His work has been translated into 28 languages, is available in 36 countries, and has generated results for 300 of the Fortune 500.


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