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High-potential employees: Emerging leaders on the move

Help your high-performers grow into their leadership potential while avoiding disillusionment or burnout

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While high-performance members are incredibly valuable to the success of any organization, they possess the ability to navigate the transition from individual all-star performer to effective team leader, organizational head and beyond.

Photo/Newton Fire/EMS Department

By Scott Metzler

It’s no secret that some of your members are better at their jobs than others. Every organization has those emerging leaders who are on track to shape the workplace culture and raise the bar for everyone around them. If you can manage to keep them engaged, they’ll probably end up running the place someday.

If this brings to mind people from your organization, you’re probably thinking about your high-potential employees. These are your next-generation leaders. But there’s more to it than that.

High-potential and high-performance Fire service members

It’s important to understand that high-performance members (aka HiPos) are more than just technically competent and great at their jobs. While high-performers are, by definition top producers, they also demonstrate the ability to build effective teams, help others develop professionally, and exercise leadership to accomplish the mission of the group, even when they don’t necessarily have the formal authority of a supervisor or boss. In short, high-performers are willing to do what it takes to get the job done, and they have the ability to do it while bringing others along with them. HiPos produce results and elevate everyone involved.

High-performance members are often fantastic individual producers: They make significant contributions to their teams, and they usually have a lot to show for their efforts. A key difference is that high-performing members often focus on improving themselves, while high-potential members learn to focus on improving teams, systems and outcomes.

It’s often difficult to view challenges and opportunities through the lens of the organization rather than through the lens of the individual, but high-potential members are effective in helping others recalibrate their paradigm when considering workplace improvements and changes.

High potential – for what?

While high-performance members are incredibly valuable to the success of any organization, they possess the ability to navigate the transition from individual all-star performer to effective team leader, organizational head and beyond. They demonstrate a high potential for leadership, and the capacity to thrive in roles of increasing responsibility.

HiPos often exhibit attributes and characteristics that are hard to describe – the elusive X-Factor. They are usually driven to excellence, and often make sacrifices to reach their goals that others are unable or unwilling to make.

High potential members tend to be life-long learners and have the innate ability to translate what they learn into actionable, productive solutions to their organizations’ most pressing problems. HiPos have the capacity to think strategically, and are often found addressing challenges a level or two above their pay grade, which can be a tricky, especially in career fields that have relied on seniority or time-in-grade to identify leaders in the past.

Emotional intelligence is a hallmark of high-potential employees, and successful HiPos manage the slippery slope of working beyond traditional role boundaries by paying close attention to their emotions and the emotions of others, especially how their words and actions influence workplace dynamics. This close attention helps high-potential members shape their message in such a way that even those who don’t easily accept organizational change don’t feel marginalized or left out if they’re slow to embrace what’s next.

Raising the bar, lowering morale

It can be exciting to work in an organization in which great ideas transform into exciting programs and measurable outcomes, but progress often comes at a price.

High-potential members are at a high risk of disillusionment and burnout when they feel their contributions aren’t appropriately rewarded or appreciated, and it’s not uncommon for them to pull back from the organization or leave it entirely when they feel they’ve been overlooked. This is a common challenge when many high-performers compete for limited promotional opportunities.

One strategy to help high-potential members remain engaged is to adjust the organizational focus from a corporate ladder model to a corporate lattice. In many organizations, especially in emergency services, the pathway to success is straight up the promotional ladder. In a corporate lattice environment, senior leaders create meaningful opportunities for high-potential members to exercise leadership without becoming someone’s boss right away. These leadership opportunities might look like special projects or particularly sticky challenges that have been waiting for just the right person to pick them up.

Matching stretch goals with high-potential members’ gifts and talents is a great way for senior leaders to help HiPo members get back in the saddle after a missed promotional opportunity or some other organizational setback. A corporate lattice environment may provide the right structure and support to emerging leaders as they continue to develop and grow, with the additional benefit of helping to keep them meaningfully engaged as formal leadership opportunities evolve.

Help your HiPos grow

Whether your organization has a formal program to help identify and develop your high-potential members, or simply does its best to support your rising stars, recognizing your HiPos and helping them grow into their leadership potential is a crucial activity that requires careful attention.

I’m interested in your experience with high-potential members. Whether you are one, manage one or desperately need one, I’d love to hear from you at

About the author

Scott Metzler is the chief of the Newton (Kansas) Fire/EMS Department. A graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program, Metzler is a dedicated student of leadership with a special interest in organizational development and adaptive leadership. A 29-year member of the Fire/EMS discipline, Metzler holds a master’s degree in public administration and is credentialed by the Center for Public Safety Excellence as a Chief Fire Officer.