Identifying Your HiPos

Tone Thomas Vaduthala
Director of Executive Education Programmes

Multiple studies have shown that investing in the top talent or 'high potential' individuals (HiPos) within organisations can result in improved financial performance.

At the Centre of Executive and Professional Education (CEPE), we partner with organisations to support managerial skills development for their HiPos across the various levels of the leadership pipeline.

When I speak to businesses, I am often asked how do I identify HiPos? A ‘nine box grid’ is a matrix tool commonly used in talent reviews which evaluates and plots a company’s talent pool based on two factors, which most commonly are performance and potential. However, these still require managers to identify and recognise potential.

Therefore, I often recommend a set of traits known as the COBALT traits. Why cobalt? The chemical element cobalt, whilst used from as early as the Bronze Age, only had its true potential recognised 4000 years later, when it was identified as a metal and element in its own right. Subsequently cobalt, being of such high potential, was used across industries for various purposes: from batteries, to jewellery, to jet engines and cancer treatment.

Many organisations uncover their ‘cobalt’ in a similar way, through their high potential individuals. Discovering these individuals earlier in their career and mentoring them appropriately could result in considerable impact and benefit.

So how can organisations identify HiPos? Identify individuals that exhibit the COBALT traits:


HiPos are often very curious. They are the ones that ask the relevant questions in meetings. They want to know more about other functions in addition to their own. This inherent curiosity also results in them building relationships not just with individuals in other departments and functions across the organisation but also with experts outside of the organisation.

Ownership mentality 

HiPos have a strong sense of ownership in what they do. Instead of seeing themselves as employees, they view themselves as part owners or entrepreneurs and therefore have a greater sense of accountability in what they do. Requiring minimal supervision, these individuals see key responsibility areas and key performance indicators as merely starting points and often go beyond the call of duty. In fact, they are able to craft out their own job descriptions and would in all probability give themselves stretch targets and achieve them. The sense of ownership results in HiPos wanting to understand the “big picture” and recognise how their role fits in with the larger organisation vision and context.

Brand ambassadors 

HiPos are usually strong brand ambassadors of the organisations of which they are a part. While they are not blind to issues within their own organisation, they tend to adopt the philosophy that “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas”. You would rarely find HiPos badmouthing their organisation in public settings. In the same way, these individuals are themselves sub-brands within the organisation and are often seen as experts and the go-to person by their peers.


Without doubt, high potential employees are ambitious. Their career graph will show fast growth with low amounts of time spent at different levels. They have career aspirations and seek growth to the extent that they might even craft new job roles themselves. A downside is that such individuals are often frustrated by jobs that are largely process driven with high levels of repetitive activity.


It goes without saying that HiPos are fast learners. They are self-aware and have the ability to learn, unlearn and relearn with ease which makes them flexible and comfortable in complex and ambiguous situations. You will often find them enrolled in part-time education relevant to a future skill that they might require.

Trusted advisors 

Interestingly, owing to them being sub-brands within their organisation and their ability to easily learn unfamiliar concepts, quite often these individuals usually play a consultative role. They are also highly customer-focussed and go out of their way to be customer centric, sometimes even beyond the organisational demands.

Whilst the COBALT traits might not encompass every single trait exhibited by high potential employees, they do serve as a strong starting point. At CEPE we can help in charting your HiPos journey right from assisting you in identifying them, to providing them with the managerial skills to achieve your organisational growth ambitions. Our customised and open-enrolment programmes offer flexible learning solutions drawing on the expertise of academics from over 15 influential interdisciplinary research centres within Leeds University Business School, each dedicated to aspects of the business world.

We are driven by a desire to accelerate your organisational purpose through transformational learning experiences that inspire action. Let’s work together to harness that potential.