Spotting your 'Rising Stars'

How do organisations define high potentials? How do they assess them? Learn to define high potentials and effective assessment approaches used by leading companies to spot them

For many companies, the process of identifying precisely who their high potentials are becomes what Employment Relations Today has called a “know it when I see it adventure,” as opposed to a systematic process that objectively evaluates and identifies the company’s rising stars.

According to Aon Hewitt, few organisations use truly systematic methods to identify their high potentials; most rely on less objective assessments, such as performance appraisals and manager recommendations.

The risk in this mode of talent management is that the process feels more like a popularity contest, allowing the pipeline to potentially be filled with the wrong talent, running the risk that top talent gets ignored or walks out the door.

Before exploring how to identity “high potentials”, it is equally important to establish a clear definition of what a “high potential” would look like.

Organisations typically identify high potentials as employees, or leaders, who possess the business acumen, vision, and leadership capabilities to become leaders within the company. However, this leads to a narrow focus on skills and attributes.  

Based on over 10 years of Top Companies for Leaders research, as well as its own consulting experience, Aon Hewitt encourages organisations to focus their efforts on employees who demonstrate “potential” combined with “readiness”.

  • Four facets of an individual – performance, character, capability, and motivation – should be considered to assess the employee’s “potential” to rise to and succeed in a more senior or expanded role.
  • Readiness” considers which stage the candidate is at to take on expanded responsibilities or experience a change in the role.
    • There are typically three stages:
      1. ‘Ready Now” (less than one year)
      2. “Ready Soon” (one to three years)
      3. “Ready Future” (more than three years)

Once “high potential” has been clearly defined, the organisation will have a clear baseline by which to assess their talent.

A major difference between Top Companies for Leaders and others is that Top Companies are more likely to use a battery of assessments unique to various leadership levels. Almost all Global Top Companies (96%) formally identify their high potentials through a balance of assessments, such as 360-degree feedback and leadership style inventories, as well as performance ratings, and nominations.

These collectively provide leading organisations with a robust view of the individual’s capabilities, cultural fit, drive, and relationships within the organisation.

While it is tempting to jump straight into the assessment tools and start the hands-on process, Aon Hewitt research shows that the fundamental starting point for a best-in-class assessment practice is alignment with the organisational strategy.

To achieve success, the assessment must focus on the organisation’s mission, values, challenges; support long-term growth and desired change; and perpetuate the enterprise by ensuring an adequate leadership pipeline.

The information in this article draws from Aon Hewitt’s extensive Top Companies for Leaders research. To find out more about how to participate in the 2014 study, please contact or visit

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