The Verdict on Mentoring Programs for ‘High Potentials’

At Mentorloop, we believe mentoring works better when we’re inclusive and bring diversity of thought to the table. We believe that everyone has something to give or share with one another. With the right mentoring software, you can easily find the perfect match for all. That’s one reason why we don’t think mentoring is exclusively for ‘high potentials’.

Defining a ‘high potential’

How exactly do businesses define ‘high potentials’ (HiPos)?

According to the Harvard Business Review (HBR), companies tend to think of HiPos as the top 3-5% of their talent:

“High potentials consistently and significantly outperform their peer groups in a variety of settings and circumstances. While achieving these superior levels of performance, they exhibit behaviours that reflect their companies’ culture and values in an exemplary manner. Moreover, they show a strong capacity to grow and succeed throughout their careers within an organisation—more quickly and effectively than their peer groups do.”

Essentially, HiPos:

  1. Deliver strong results—credibly,
  2. Master new types of expertise, 
  3. Recognise that behaviour counts, and
  4. Have an “X” factor: A drive to excel, a catalytic learning capability, an enterprising spirit, dynamic sensors, etc.

However, even though workplace solution provider SHL found that HiPos bring 91% more value to an organisation than non-HiPos, 73% of HiPo programs fail to deliver business outcomes and ROI.

The problems with high potential only mentoring programs

We’ve seen our fair share of high-potential only mentoring programs—sometimes they work, but oftentimes they don’t.


Traditional mentoring programs often favour the bold and have a lot of bias, resulting in more of the same people being lifted up. That’s why it’s time to prioritise inclusivity and diversity in our mentoring programs.

As we mentioned in a previous post, HBR found that while white men tend to find mentors on their own, women and minorities more often need help from formal programs. Why is this? HBR cites Georgetown’s former business school dean David Thomas, who found that “white male executives don’t feel comfortable reaching out informally to young women and minority men”. However, if it’s within a structured mentoring program, this changes: “They are eager to mentor assigned protégés, and women and minorities are often first to sign up for mentors”.

So if you’re running a mentoring program to improve diversity outcomes, be sure to have this front of mind or look to expand your offering to a greater mentoring pool.

Confusing potential with performance

Another problem with HiPo-only mentoring programs is that it’s not uncommon for organisations to confuse potential with performance.
As Forbes notes, “One of the main reasons why HiPo programs fail is that they focus too much—sometimes exclusively—on performance.” Author Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic goes on to note this is problematic for two reasons: 1. Businesses are usually not very good at measuring performance, and 2. Even if they are good at measuring performance, many top performers will fail to perform well at the next level.

Think of it this way:

When you transition employees from individual contributors to managers, or from managers to leaders, the pivotal qualities or competencies that drive high-performance change. Furthermore, many strong individual contributors are not even interested in managing or leading others, preferring instead to focus on independent problem-solving or being a team-player. The result is a paradoxical system that removes people from a job they are rather good at, and re-positions them in a role they are neither able nor willing to do.

It’s important for organisations to note that while performance is what you do, potential is what you could do. If the role someone is being moved into does not build on the skills s/he has mastered in his or her current role—the skills s/he is performing well—there’s no way to know that the same level of mastery will be attained in the new role. Therefore, it’s important to understand the difference between performance and potential, and realise there might be someone better for the open position, someone you might not have considered.

So, seeing as 95% of organisations are ineffective at following through on action plans to help individuals develop for new roles, how can you successfully close the gap between potential and performance? SHL found that “on-the-job learning has two and a half times the impact on engagement and three times the impact on performance than traditional training.”

Source: SHL

Providing clear career paths and offering structured development opportunities that match personal career goals can increase employee engagement and performance.

And what’s a great way to accomplish both? Building a culture of mentoring at your organisation.

Mentoring to develop strong leaders

Investing in programs that accurately identify and successfully develop not just HiPos, but a diverse array of team members, can create successful leaders. And these leaders can have a big impact on business performance and results.

Source: SHL

What’s more, implementing a mentoring program can help employees acquire valuable job-related information, while allowing mentors to serve as role models that motivate their mentoring partners to, as Plum notes, “obtain valuable knowledge to promote a successful career”.

A culture of mentoring can also help team members:

  • Prepare for future roles
  • Maintain focus on business goals
  • Provide challenges
  • Navigate organisational culture
  • Acquire and develop new skills
  • Overcome plateaus in learning

Ultimately, mentoring shouldn’t just be for high potentials, as everyone at your organisation can benefit. Building this culture of mentorship can provide support, develop talent, inspire commitment and engagement, improve retention, and foster an environment of continuous learning and progress.

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Em is our Marketing Manager at Mentorloop. That's a lot of 'm's! | She is passionate about crafting messages, crafternoons and craft beer.

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[…] on the type of mentoring philosophy a vendor is preaching. Is their mentoring ideology based on HiPo (high potential) growth? Is it an enterprise solution that requires long sales and training cycles? Is it focused on […]