When a High Potential Employee Fails


No matter what company, high potential employees (high pots) get that fancy designation because in their world, they rock. They succeed and turn in solid results. In whatever discipline they work, they kill it.

But sometimes a funny thing happens on the high pot’s career path–they fail. Maybe their fault, maybe not, but the project, team or assignment they own went in the ditch.

One of the smartest guys I know refers to this as a star prizefighter “tasting his own blood for the first time.” It stuns them.  Then my friend follows up with the key observation for Talent pros:

“Let’s see what happens next.”

Look, no one has a perfect track record, but while it might be cool to say how awesome it is to fail, failure pretty much sucks. No one likes failures.  Especially high-pots. They’ve succeeded their whole professional lives. They’re used to being told how great they are—in fact, they need it. Now, failure has touched them, often for the first time in their careers.

And they don’t know what to do.

As the talent pro, this is a critical time. You’ve invested a lot in Suzy. Training, prime assignments, the right amount of exposure up and down the organization. If she truly is a high pot, she’s valuable. You won’t kick her to the curb unless the failure involved a lack of integrity or gagiliions of dollars. The company isn’t going out of business. Life goes on.

But for Suzy, it’s critical. What does she do next? Who does she become? Here are the usual suspects:

  • The Recluse—Burned by the failure, unable to recover, Suzy goes into her shell. She still leads people, but falls off of succession plans and the high potential list. Her star loses its luster, and she resigns herself to that outcome. She reads the Peter principle and sees herself.
  • The Ripcord Realist—With zero interest in being tainted by the failure, Suzy pulls the ripcord and gets out. She leverages her network, glosses over this last project during interviews, and looks to reinvent herself outside of the company. The loyalty you thought she had? Gonzo.
  • The Blamer—Dreams of an office with lots of mahogany are now gone, and Suzy is bent. She goes aggressive and blames others for the failure, working on salvaging her internal brand. In highly political climates, this might work. In a good culture, this is seen as a desperate play and fails.
  • The Player—Humbled by the failure, but still confident in her abilities, Suzy takes some time to regroup. She owns her part in the failure, learns from her mistakes, seeks feedback and tackles another project.

The Talent Pro / Coach has a critical role to play here to guide Suzy to the best possible outcome. My suggestion—lay out the options for them. Show them examples of success and failure in your own firm. Challenge them to be the Player, and caution them against the other outcomes. The investment in them is not lost because they had a project go south, but letting the project take them down usually doesn’t make sense.

FOT Note: This rant is brought to you by the good folks at OutMatch who like us enough to be an annual sponsor at FOT for all content in our Talent Selection and Employee Development track (and don’t expect that we run any of this by them ahead of time). 

FOT Background Check

RJ Morris
R. J. Morris is based in the STL as the Director of Talent Acquisition and Management for McCarthy Building Companies, a multi-billion dollar national firm. Like many others in the FOT clan, he’s a sports nut who can endlessly draw the parallels between athletes, sports and the talent management game. I know, I know, as if we needed more of that. He has 10 years of practitioner experience leading talent efforts in corporate HR and another 7 years in leadership roles on the agency side, so he gets both sides of the desk. Talk to R.J. via emailLinkedInTwitter...


  1. Roz L says:

    I agree with not everyone will have a perfect track record and people just need 2nd chances.

  2. Ashleigh M says:

    I think that every employer seeks to employ employees that are “players.” They are the ones who bounce back time and time again to exceed expectations and learn from each mistake made. After all Thomas Edison didn’t get the lightbulb right his very first try but he learned from it and eventually he created what we now all use as our light source.

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