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The 20 [Bad] Habits of a Hi-Po


Here at the Grilled Cheese Coaching Company we’ve had the privilege to work with High Potential employees representing almost every major geography, role, function and career stage. As a result, we’ve been able to observe some patterns of behavior that can show up for this fascinating group of employees.

Of course, there are always many very positive habits and behaviors present, derived from the Hi-Po’s:

  • Commitment to personal and professional growth and development
  • Commitment to the success of the organization, often well above and beyond the average employee
  • Desire to increase their contribution and impact to the organization

That is, after all, why they were singled out as a Hi-Po in the first place. However, as Marshall Goldsmith so succinctly put it with his brilliant book title ‘What got you here won’t get you there’, the very behaviours that led to that Hi-Po designation can sometimes become the barriers to long term success.

Here’s a list of 20 such behaviors or habits, in no particular order (and somewhat exaggerated to emphasise the point!):

  1. Taking on too much: The saying, “If you want something done, ask a busy person” has never been more true with Hi-Pos. Word will spread across the organization that this person gets results, and the work will flow to them. A Hi-Po will relish the recognition and opportunity to contribute each time and, if left unchecked, will lead to an unsustainable workload.
  2. Not saying “No”: A significant contributor to (1) is the desire of the Hi-Po to always say yes, both to demonstrate their commitment to the organisation and their belief that they will probably do a better job than most anyway.
  3. Not letting go: Once they’re engaged with a project or role, it’s hard for a Hi-Po to give that up. Their strong sense of ownership means they can do great work, but also means they’re only ever adding to that portfolio of work, which pretty soon becomes unsustainable.
  4. Needing to control everything: A Hi-Po can tip over from managing a tight ship to having to control every aspect of a project in the belief that without their influence, it will unravel.
  5. Failing to delegate or partner: As a Hi-Po is often focused on delivering the very best work, it’s hard for them to partner with others, especially when they believe that this will lead to a lower quality output.
  6. Playing the hero: Sometimes Hi-Pos get called in to fix a mess. The more this happens, the more they can start to see themselves as the saviour of the team or project, riding in on their white horse to save the day.
  7. Avoiding failure: Getting it right first time every time can become seductive for the Hi-Po, to the extent that they fear failure. This can lead to stagnation as they begin to play it safe.
  8. Chasing Perfection: When the Hi-Po develops a sense that perfect is possible, they may pursue this like a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, trying to get to the perfect answer, or to deliver the perfect work, and consuming ever more cycles in the process.
  9. Optimising for the individual: This is a problem shared by the individual and the project lead, or team manager: The team becomes aligned around the Hi-Po (like having a star Striker or Quarterback) rather than optimised at the system level, leading to bottlenecks and inefficiencies as the Hi-Po becomes a single point of failure in the flow.
  10. Going the extra mile: When you run a marathon, you typically stop at the finish line – unless you’re a Hi-Po, addicted to ‘exceeding expectations’ on every project. While it’s great to do great work, sometimes ‘good enough’ is good enough.
  11. Becoming addicted to the challenge: Growth comes from pushing boundaries, but sometimes that can tip over into seeking greater challenge at any cost. This can lead to burn-out as the Hi-Po lives life on the bleeding edge all the time, with no time for self-reflection and consolidation of learning.
  12. Becoming addicted to the reward: Often when the Hi-Po starts out, they’re motivated by the opportunity to grow, to do interesting work, and to make an impact. Over time, as more focus goes on the results they’re delivering, and it is the results that get rewarded rather than the effort that led to them, their mindset can shift towards wanting or needing the reward. Ironically, this can lead to a decrease in quality and ultimately to a loss of that reward, which creates a viscious cycle.
  13. Developing a sense of entitlement: There’s always a risk that when singled out as a Hi-Po by the organisation, that the individual begins to believe the hype and develops unrealistic expectations about how far they can go, how fast that should happen, and how much it should pay.
  14. Building the perfect niche: High-Performance in their current role, taking on more and more work and delivering higher and higher quality, can carve out a niche that becomes its own kind of ‘high-performing prison’, making it hard for the Hi-Po to escape (especially when a manager wants to keep them there)
  15. Forgetting to invest in growth: With such a strong commitment to delivering results for the organisation, the Hi-Po can often forget to make time for their own growth, with the feeling that this is somehow self-indulgent.
  16. Forgetting to maintain work/life balance: Another cost to many of the behaviours so far is that work and life can get out of balance, and in small and seemingly insignificant ways, like spending an extra hour at the office each night, the Hi-Po starts to cause damage to their important relationships and / or their health.
  17. Sacrificing what really matters: A close partner to losing balance is that the Hi-Po loses track of what is really important to them, and they make choices in the short term that do not serve their long-term life-plan.
  18. Becoming a victim of their own success: Hi-Pos that display many of these behaviors can, over time, develop a victim mindset where they see being singled out as a Hi-Po as a burden and something that is negative, asking: “Why does this keep happening to me?”
  19. Becoming disillusioned: Trying to go too far too fast can lead to a sense of disillusionment, as the Hi-Po becomes disconnected from their values and beliefs in pursuit of success.
  20. Becoming a martyr: With an increasing sense that they are vital to organisational success (they are!), and the sense that all of these behaviors are the burden they have to carry, the Hi-Po can romanticise the damage they cause to themselves and those around them. As burn-out looms, they somehow maintain the belief that the end justified the means.


Scary, huh? Like we said, these are somewhat exaggerated for effect, although we’ve witnessed every one of these situations to some degree, and often more than one in any given individual.

Here’s the good news though: None of these habits and behaviours are inevitable, and with careful management they can all be avoided.

I’m sure in each case you can see that the underlying drivers are what make a Hi-Po in the first place. The key is to ensure a careful balance is struck between achieving performance and unlocking potential. This is as much the responsibility of the organisation as it is the individual Hi-Po, and it needs to be built into a comprehensive Talent Management strategy that is optimised for long-term and sustainable growth.

What now?

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