The Pitfalls of High-Potentials: Technically-Skilled Employees Fail to Meet Performance Expectations

Provo, UT – March 6, 2018 – What good is potential if you don’t live up to it? A new study by experts at VitalSmarts, a leadership training company, shows 70 percent of managers currently have at least one employee, classified as someone with “high-potential” (HIPO), whom they are considering letting go because their performance is unacceptable.

The study of more than 1,000 managers and employees also revealed that, even if they’re not considering downsizing their team, 88 percent of managers have at least one HIPO direct report who doesn’t live up to his or her HIPO title. Peers were even more discerning, with 96 percent saying they have at least one HIPO teammate who regularly fails to meet performance standards.

So, exactly what characteristics elevate employees from standard contributor to HIPO? According to the managers in the study, there are many. Exceptional ability related to decision-making skills, technical skills, analytical skills, interpersonal/people skills, communication skills, teamwork skills or time-management skills can make a person stand out as a high-potential.

While there are many qualities that set HIPOs apart from their peers, managers attribute their gap in performance to just a handful of factors. The top three reasons managers attribute to their HIPOs falling short include:

  • HIPOs struggle to stay focused on the right priorities
  • HIPOs fail to communicate or avoid surprises in their work day or responsibilities
  • HIPOs struggle to meet deadlines

According to David Maxfield, New York Times bestselling author, behavioral scientist and expert in workplace productivity, we’re seeing this performance gap as HIPOs push their productivity habits to the breaking point.

“These high potentials have been successful,” says Maxfield. “They have strong track records that have gotten them to where they are. But often, the productivity practices they’ve used 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.”

Maxfield’s colleague, Justin Hale, productivity expert and training designer at VitalSmarts, says HIPOs suffer from what ails most employees: committing to more work than they have time to complete.

“These days, we’re not only expected to do a lot of work but also manage incoming distractions such as emails, texts, sticky notes or a ‘drive-bys’ from a boss,” says Hale. “In this perfect storm, most of us don’t know how to quickly reprioritize current projects in context of the new tasks we just agreed to; or if we should change priorities at all.”

Respondents agreed. When asked why they think HIPOs get overwhelmed:

  • 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/priority-management skills.

Why is this trend so disruptive? Both managers and employees said this performance gap comes with great costs. Nearly half of managers (48 percent) said this gap costs the organization more than $25,000 per low-performing HIPO. They also identified negative impacts to other key metrics with quality and customer relations being most affected.

So how can HIPOs reclaim their lost potential? According to the survey, employees and managers said it was important for HIPOs to learn to say no, ask for help, stay focused on the job at hand and learn how to better manage their time.

Maxfield and Hale provide a few skills failing HIPOs can learn to close the performance gap. They also provide skills for managers to help their HIPOs realize their full potential.


  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, email, 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 very 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.


  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, manage 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 common-sense 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.


Note to Editor: Maxfield and Hale are available for interviews.

About VitalSmarts: Named one of the Top 20 Leadership Training Companies, VitalSmarts is home to the award-winning Crucial Conversations®, Crucial Accountability®, Getting Things Done®, and Influencer Training® and New York Times bestselling books of the same titles. VitalSmarts has consulted with more than 300 of the Fortune 500 companies and trained more than 2 million people worldwide.

Contact: Clay Blackham at or 801-461-9767.

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