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5 Solutions to Prevent Your High Potential Program From Failing

by Mark Stuart

Head Trainer, Anagram Group

Over the past few years, the term HiPo has joined the list of HR buzzwords, alongside firm favourites such as Millennials, Gen Z, Holacracy, and micro-learning. In most firms, high potential (HiPo) employees are deemed those most likely to excel and progress into more senior positions. They are the employees that firms want to ensure stay within the firm and don’t get lost to the competition. In short, they are the future. 

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Anagram's stages of a High Po programme

As a result, companies started to devise HiPo programs to invest in these employees to keep them engaged and motivated, and ensure they have the relevant skills to continue their career path. Training companies, such as Anagram Group, began to work with companies on these programs to ensure the ongoing development of their future leaders. These programs typically range from 3 to 12 months, and can contain anything from 6 to 80 employees.

This naturally comes at some significant investment on the part of the employer, yet despite best intentions from all parties, many fail to achieve their original objectives. CEB Global’s research indicates that HiPos are 91% more valuable than non-HiPos, yet 73% of programs are failing to deliver business outcomes or ROI. Let’s now look at why, and what can be done to reverse this trend.

Problem #1: Lack of management buy-in. For a HiPo program to be successful, participants need to feel that they have management who are supportive of their inclusion. Without this, they can start to feel disengaged and demotivated.

Solution: The training company should have a pre-program meeting or call with the line managers of all the participants, co-ordinated by the HR/L&D team. This allows both sides to explain the reason behind the program, why their employee was selected (hopefully the managers were involved in the selection process), what changes they should expect to see throughout, and what is needed from the managers to support their employee for the duration of the program. Support should include: regular catch-ups to discuss what they’ve been learning and how it can be applied in their jobs, facilitating opportunities to put their new skills in place, and creating a small amount of capacity in their jobs to let this happen. With the programs we run, we have the participants make an end of year presentation, displaying some of their new-found skills and confidence, in front of their managers and a panel of senior directors.


Problem #2: Wrong employees chosen for the program. The success of your HiPo program is dependent on the correct selection of employees


Solution: According to CEB Global, a successful HiPo candidate has three distinguishing attributes: aspiration for reaching a more senior position, the ability to be more effective in senior roles and engagement and commitment to the firm. However, if the wrong employees are selected, 55% are likely to leave or drop out of the program. This comes at a huge cost to the firm, so the HR department needs to invest time and collaborate with the business to ensure they get it right up front.


Problem #3: Lack of clarity from the employee as to why they have been selected for the program.

Solution: Both HR and the respective line manager should be talking with the participant and explaining why they have been selected, and confirm their desired participation. Certain things can derail the employees’ enthusiasm for the program, resulting in: a lack of willingness to participate (usually a sign of disengagement), reluctance to appear ‘above’ their peers, or on the flipside, they suddenly think they are more important than their colleagues. It should be clear that participation is seen as a positive activity, a reward if you like, but that they don’t need to return to their teams and talk about how they had the day off for a workshop or went on some external team-building trip.


Problem #4: Lack of clear objectives and overall goals for the program

Solution: Agree up front what the company is aiming to achieve by running the program. Otherwise, what often happens is you get to the end of the year, the participants have taken some useful workshops, and then they return to their jobs and perform the same as before. Unless their development is structured throughout the year with an end state in mind, you won’t get a good return on your dollar.

Ensure the training company delivers a varied program including workshops, individual and/or group coaching, additional and relevant articles to read between workshops that enhance learning, and some offsite time to get away from the office. Without variety, you risk seeing the participants become slowly disengaged.


Problem #5: Lack of ongoing communication between employer and training company throughout program   

Solution: A HiPo program normally last for between a minimum of 3 months, and anything up to 12 months. It’s a different engagement for both sides compared to the traditional 1 or 2-day workshop and then you never see each other again (unless you’re called back of course, but that is still normally months down the line). The training company needs to treat their client as if they’re in a relationship with them. Communication shouldn’t be restricted to solely during workshops or coaching sessions. They should be providing regular feedback to HR (ideally anonymously if something came from a participant) on identified issues or progress, making suggestions on changes to the program as they go along, and sending through relevant articles or case studies to supplement the workshops.


With that in mind, what can firms on both sides of the equation do better to ensure their HiPo program is a success and delivers ROI?

HiPo programs can be complex and daunting for both the employer and the training company. There are far easier options to take, but if the employer wants consistent, meaningful change in their top-performing employees, it’s worth the expense, calculated risk and the time invested. From a training company’s perspective, it’s also some of the most rewarding work that I get involved in. The opportunity to work closely with companies over a longer period of time, and have the opportunity to see the impact of our work, is what most trainers dream of.

The key to a successful program is quite simple – communication. The trainer, HR team, participant and line manager all need to have an open communication approach, and ensure all decisions are taken with the most important person in mind: the participant.


These programs take up a lot time but aren’t your most promising employees worth it?

Mark Stuart is Head Trainer of Anagram Group. Among the programmes he runs are High Potential Programmes.


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