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Research + Insights: Views of Employers & Employees

By Allan Church and Jay Conger

Five X-Factors for Realizing  the High Potential’s Advantage

In the world of work today, there are few questions asked by employees as compelling as “What does it take to become a high-potential leader in my organization — what’s the right stuff I need to develop?” Whether you are leading a major line of business, or simply in the early stages of your career, the burning desire to know the answer is the same. 

There are good reasons for this deep interest in the desire to be identified as high-potential talent. For individuals, it’s all about having better and more varied career opportunities (e.g., special task forces, expatriate assignments), greater exposure to senior leaders, participation in leadership development programs, faster promotions, and more significant job responsibilities. It’s also about being recognized and given the opportunity to be far more influential. For organizations, it’s about ensuring a robust talent management process. It’s about a valid and consistently applied process that identifies the capabilities and talent required for the future success of the enterprise. The ultimate goal is a robust pipeline of talent ready to take on greater responsibility from junior roles all the way to the CEO’s job. 

So how do people go about learning what it takes to be successful, to get on this high potential list? While practice in this area has far outpaced theory and research, new models are emerging around leadership potential (e.g., Church, 2014; Church & Silzer, 2014; Conger & Church, 2018; Ready, Conger & Hill, 2010; Silzer & Church, 2009) that are proving useful to organizations interested in designing their frameworks and systems. PepsiCo, for example, has implemented a multi-trait, multi-method assessment and development process that focuses on identifying and developing leadership potential at multiple levels in the organization (Church & Rotolo, 2016; Silzer, Church, Rotolo, & Scott, 2016). 

For the individual, however, almost no guidance exists (at least not written down anywhere for people to find). What is needed is a far more practical and actionable set of behaviors. With these, they can focus on developing their own high-potential skills and abilities. To accomplish this, we set about building a pragmatic behavioral framework that individuals at all levels can embrace and deploy day-to-day. This is the focus of our new book The High Potential’s Advantage (Conger & Church, 2018). 

The development of this framework has its roots in a comprehensive literature review that produced the Leadership Potential BluePrint (Church & Silzer, 2014; Silzer & Church, 2009). The blueprint outlines the key foundational, growth, and career factors that are helpful in classifying all the possible variables that predict whether someone is a high-potential leader. From there, we integrated insights from many recent studies on high-potential talent and assessment practices conducted with over a hundred best-in-class organizations. We also studied a sample of high-potential leaders from 45 global companies regarding their distinguishing attributes. Finally, in-depth interviews were conducted with over a hundred high-potential leaders in a variety of organizations and functions along with three dozen senior HR leaders who oversee high-potential talent. A synthesis of these many insights led us to identify five key X-factors outlined in our book that represent a new approach for attaining high potential status. We will describe this framework of factors from the individual’s point of view below after first examining how organizations themselves define the term ‘high potential.’ 

How Do Organizations Define High Potential?

The following succinct definition from one organization captures the essence of what it means to be a high potential: “A highly valuable contributor with a great deal of stretch capability within the organization. Such individuals are typically promoted to higher levels beyond their current role, and a select few can be seen as leading the organization at the senior levels” (Church & Waclawski, 2010). Many organizations — and likely yours — define high potential as concretely as “your capacity to step into a role that is two levels or more above the one you currently hold.” If performance is all about delivering results in your current job, then potential is simply about the opportunity to deliver results in leadership roles in the future (Church, 2015). 

While companies have pay-for-performance systems to support this mindset, they need more from their leaders than just top-notch performance now. They are hungry for talent that can rapidly grow into demanding roles later. So they proactively assess the potential for jobs that are several levels above your current one. The question they ask before deciding on your next promotion is a simple one: “Do you have the right stuff to rapidly learn and lead in a job that is far more complex and demanding than the one you currently hold?” 

The dilemma for individuals is the highly selective nature of this talent designation. Our research with hundreds of organizations shows that typically only 10 to 15 percent of an organization’s overall talent comprise this pool of high-potential talent (Church & Rotolo, 2013; Ready, Hill & Conger, 2010; Silzer & Church, 2010). 

The Question of Potential from the Employee’s Point of View

Aspiring leaders in organizations ask themselves these fundamental questions related to their careers: What are the skills, abilities, and knowledge that I need to get to the senior-most levels of my organization? And do they differ at career stages or stay basically the same throughout my career? What does my boss look for when assessing whether I am a high-potential leader? What other criteria does my organization’s talent review use to assess my potential? Our research to answer these questions identified five critical skills that differentiate high-potentials from everyone else. We call them the X-factors of high-potential talent. Anyone can learn and get better at these skills, but our research shows that you must be proficient in all five to get on your company’s high potential list. You must always be improving them to stay on the list. Certain skills are building blocks to others so there is a sequence that you need to cultivate. No matter your career or industry, you will find these five skills will hold true across the broadest spectrum of high-potential designations, from early career to senior management, as well as different industries. 

So What Does it Take to Be a High Potential?

Over a career, the real high-potential differentiators, our X-factors, are the secret sauce that distinguishes the high-potential leaders from their peers (see figure 1-1). Beyond your first or second promotion, it is these skills that ensure you get and keep a high potential designation. Your superiors will look for these factors when making the call about your future potential. 

These X-factors don’t usually show up on lists of leadership competencies or on performance review forms. They describe more holistic skills and capabilities that integrate across commonly used talent assessment tools. Possessing the five can help you achieve that coveted high potential ranking across a wide range of organizational settings and roles. As we mentioned, we found that all the X-factors applied across different types of companies, industries, and levels of the hierarchy. Most importantly, you can develop the X-factors over time with conscious effort. While a person’s raw capabilities are important, you can cultivate the X-factors throughout an entire career if you focus intently on developing them. 

You must be competent at all five skills. But, at different points in your career, some are more important than others. The first two X-factors, for example, are important skills to develop early in your career, and you’re unlikely to advance without them. But the further up you go, the more important the other skills become and the more opportunities you’ll have to practice the third and fourth factors. The last X-factor is foundational — it is the one skill that drives all the others. The following are brief descriptions of each of the five:

Situation sensing. The first X-factor has to do with your most important relationship at work — the one with your boss. It reflects the capacity to sense rapidly your boss’s priorities and unique stylistic imperatives. Especially at the earlier stages of your career — where this X-factor skill is disproportionately more important than the others — only your bosses know you, judge you, and represent you to the organization. In the meetings where executives confer high potential status, your boss must go to bat for you. A high potential talent designation is therefore all about advocacy. Situation sensing is a critical skill to master early in a career because what one person in the organization considers important could be very different from what’s important to someone else. With situation sensing capacity, you can adapt thoughtfully to what matters most to superiors. The person most likely to assess your potential is your boss. Mess up that relationship, and you’ll totally miss a shot at the high potential designation. 

Talent accelerating. This factor is a constellation of skills related to assessing, motivating, and guiding the many teams you’ll lead over your career. Your boss designates you as high-potential talent, but it is your team that determines whether you can deliver the results to achieve that designation. You have to think carefully about who works for you, who you hire, fire, promote, and develop, and how. You have to be as interested in your team members’ potential as your own. After your first job as an individual contributor, you’ll move into team leadership roles and eventually be leading teams of teams. Talent accelerating calls for you to be a quick study of talent, and masterful in developing that talent. High-potentials succeed because they draw deeply on the strengths and drives of the individuals they lead. They are also skillful in holding that talent accountable for performance and behavior. In essence, your talent is built upon the talent of your team. 

Career piloting. As you move up and across your organization, you’ll have more challenging assignments to develop and test your potential. Each will require remarkable versatility in terms of adapting your behavior and mindset. You’ll have new and complex bodies of knowledge to acquire and master. To succeed going forward, you’ll have to cultivate the third X-factor, career piloting, your ability to quickly adapt to new situations by adjusting your mindset, flexing your leadership style, engaging your team and peers to solve and implement with a laser focus, and staying tightly connected to your boss. This means finding ways to deliver on the high-potential’s promise of outstanding performance no matter how big or how bad the next assignment. The breadth of your leadership skills will be honed and tested simultaneously. You’ll need to be highly perceptive along with being comfortable with ambiguity, and the necessity of a calm, perceptive, and relational demeanor.

Complexity translating. One common misconception about high-potentials is that superior intelligence wins the day. Being the smartest person in the room, however, is not an advantage — we have seen it become a roadblock for high-potential candidates. Instead it is your ability to synthesize seemingly disparate data and information into strategic and relevant insights, and to communicate those insights in a way that advances the organization that is critical for success. Your high potential status doesn’t rely on you being the smartest person in the room, but on connecting the dots and helping others see those connections. When you start out on your career, you’ll be rewarded for your complexity translating ability to gather lots of data and deeply understand an issue. As you advance, you will be expected to take information of all kinds (problems, goals, data, trends, ideas, alternatives, scenarios, outcomes) and distill them to their most relevant components. You’ll be rewarded for clear, critical insights that help your colleagues solve vexing problems. This means delivering meaningful and actionable insights in every possible format — a presentation to your peers that lays out a compelling strategic plan, a kickoff speech when you inspire your team to implement a new vision, a simple and focused discussion with your CEO about a certain new initiative that needs a major capital investment. You will be recognized for your ability to make the right and compelling translation for each level of the organization you are influencing. 

Catalytic learning. The first four X-factors — situation sensing, talent accelerating, career piloting, and complexity translating — differentiate high-potentials from their peers and others. The fifth X-factor that supports all the others is a mindset we call “catalytic learning.” This allows you to accomplish all the other factors. Catalytic learning is learning with a purpose. It’s what you do with what you’re learning, how you take insights and lessons and convert them into performance. It’s catalytic because this kind of learning transforms lessons into actions. High-potentials learn quickly and understand how to apply that learning to benefit the organization. 

Long-term high-potentials are able to learn and keep learning even after establishing remarkable track records. They are deeply and broadly curious. These qualities ensure they become and stay world-class situation sensors, talent-accelerators, career pilots, and complexity translators. Most importantly, they always translate their learning into insights, initiatives and actions — all aimed at improving or transforming the status quo. They are never passive. That’s the catalytic part.

The Problem with Potential and Why This Gives You Power to Influence It

One challenge with defining what is ‘potential’ in organizations is that the process of gauging it is elusive and imprecise — and can be highly subjective. And despite what some leaders would like to believe, potential does not equate to current or past performance (Church, 2015). It involves determining how well you will perform in future jobs that you have never had and with demands that you have never experienced. Because of this challenge, most bosses simply look to see how well you are doing now to determine your potential. Yet research indicates that a person’s current performance rarely predicts their future performance in different, more complex and/or bigger roles. No matter, bosses often don’t appreciate that fact. Precisely because it’s so hard for managers and organizations to truly assess someone’s potential, it’s something that you can influence. Our research shows that your performance on the five X-factors will most influence your bosses’ perceptions of whether you’re ready to be considered a high potential. In other words, many bosses define potential through their observations of the presence of the X-factors — though they may use different terms for each. 

Does Being Designated a High Potential Really Matter?

The real reason you’ll want to strive for the designation as high-potential talent is that, once you are chosen, entirely new opportunities open up. Organizations invest their scarce development resources most heavily in their top-rated talent. The smartest choice is to invest those limited dollars and opportunities in individuals with the absolute greatest potential. 

What specific kinds of exciting opportunities can you expect as a high-potential leader, ones that your peers may not get a shot at? The following are the major ones:

Accelerated promotions. Companies focus on pulling high-potentials through the organization quickly, which translates into faster advancement than anyone else. Just as importantly, research on these high-flyer leaders indicates that they often maximize their learning in new roles after about 18 months on the job. 

More frequent and diverse roles. Along with faster advancement, high-potentials have more opportunities to build their knowledge of the business and their leadership muscle. If your company assessed you as high-potential talent, it will ask you to change jobs more frequently and consider you for more critical experiences, key roles, or one-of-a-kind high-visibility projects than your peers. Best of all, your company manages your career more thoughtfully, ensuring accelerated development opportunities that your colleagues may never experience.

More development resources and support. High-potentials almost always have priority for more of the company’s development resources than their peers. In one study we conducted, 50 percent of the participating global corporations focused their talent investments primarily on high-potential leaders. This means that you will be the first to be involved in internal leadership programs, mentoring relationships, external course offerings, special projects, coaching support, feedback and assessment processes, and other developmental opportunities. If you decide to opt out of them, you will send a signal to your organization that you don’t want to be considered high-potential talent. 

Visibility to senior leadership. Finally, being a high potential means you likely have far greater opportunities to meet, spend time with, and even work directly with the executive leaders in your organization. You might meet them through special task forces, mentoring relationships, invitations to present where you normally might not, participation in a leadership program where executives are leading or speaking, or simply having breakfast or lunch with a senior leader in what are called “meet and greets.” In many cases, your CEO may know who you are. Indeed, they are likely to have your name and talent data at their fingertips. They are likely to know your leadership and functional strengths, career preferences, assessment results, mobility preferences, and so on. This heightened visibility means that you have to stay on top of your game. You have to keep earning your special status.

Using Feedback to Develop Strengths and Sidestep Derailers

Over the last two decades, we have learned a great deal about leadership development as it relates to high-potential talent. At the core is the importance of self-awareness and receptivity to constructive feedback. Research has shown that leaders who are self-aware are simply better performers and in turn have higher potential (Church, 1997). Feedback serves as the means to understand and diagnose your strengths as well as to identify opportunities for self improvement. It is foundational to gaining self-awareness. This is why proactively seeking feedback and acting upon it is critical to your continued success. It is essential to your development of the X-factors with which you are less proficient. 

It is equally important to use feedback to identify ways to mitigate the downsides of your potential derailers or shortcomings. We usually think of our derailers as the dark side elements of personality such as our needs for control or dominance (e.g., working for a leader who is high excitable, high skeptical and high diligent all at the same time as measured by the Hogan Development Survey can be quite challenging). But what many fail to appreciate is that high-potential characteristics themselves can become negatives if you’re not careful. Impressive strengths can turn into derailers, and the X-factors we describe here are no exception. For example, if you overuse situation sensing, you might be seen by your co-workers and your boss as a sycophant without your own set of opinions or worse as an untrustworthy person. Similarly, someone who wants to impress others with their strength in complexity translating might find themselves always correcting their colleagues for making issues too complex. Inadvertently, this behavior effectively shuts down discussions. As a result, the high potential ends up being labeled as an arrogant know-it-all. Those who are strong catalytic learners may find it hard not to judge others who are less inclined to seek new knowledge and experiment with ideas. To safeguard against these outcomes, the key is always to maintain a genuine openness to feedback and responsiveness to acting upon it. It is important to be highly observant about the cues, both formal and informal, regarding how you come across to others. And if you’re not getting the feedback you need to ask for it. 


In the end, the real challenge is not only becoming a high potential, but staying one. While demonstrated sustained performance over time is important, that is not the same thing as demonstrating potential either (Church, 2015). Focusing on building your skills against the five X-factors is what will help get you there and keep you there. At the same time, you must continue to build and adapt your leadership skills. Never assume you’ve made it. The steep curve of the learning challenges you’ll encounter only increases as you climb in your organization. We’ve witnessed talented individuals reach the executive level and then lose their status before achieving their ultimate career goal of becoming a senior vice president or even a C-suite executive. They assumed that the requirement to earn their designations no longer applied. After all, they had arrived. Others failed to grasp the new skills and knowledge they needed to develop. Some didn’t appreciate that their coping mechanisms for keeping derailers in check were no longer viable. In all these cases, people lost their high potential designations because they stopped learning in essential ways. They lost their ability to be versatile in their behaviors and mindsets as they faced new and challenging situations. The best way to avoid such outcomes is to cultivate the continuous learning mindset required to stay a high-potential leader during your entire career. 

So where do we go from here? For individuals who want to improve their skills and climb the corporate ladder as high-potentials, our advice is to focus on developing your skills through continuous feedback and learning in all five of the X-factors. Never take your foot off the pedal. For organizations seeking to identity and develop their highest potential talent, we recommend the use of different formal assessment tools such as 360-degree feedback, personality measures, cognitive tests, simulations etc. that together measure the various underlying components of the X-factors (whether labeled that way or not) based on valid measurement principles. We know from research that no single tool or assessment will ever give us the answer to the question of potential just as no single individual will ever have all the necessary potential. Potential is a complex and dynamic phenomena for individuals and organizations, and we must always treat it that way!  

Allan H. Church, Ph.D., is the senior vice president of Global Talent Assessment and Development at PepsiCo, Inc. and a Fellow of the Society for Industrial-Organizational Psychology. He can be reached at

Jay A. Conger, DBA., is the Henry R. Kravis Professor of Leadership Studies, Claremont McKenna College. He can be reached at


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