Innovation & High Performance White Paper


Employees within the top 5% of an organization are often invited to participate in a “HIPO” program, which takes high performers and transforms them into leaders, ready to take on new roles and challenges. These are individuals who have proven a high degree of technical and professional expertise, have demonstrated an ability to drive results, and are an excellent culture fit.

While 66% of companies have HIPO (or similar) programs, only 13% of executives have confidence in the rising leaders within their organizations, according to HBR.

That begs the question: what’s causing the disconnect? 

Well, in a study conducted by the Harvard Business Review on leadership effectiveness within HIPO employees, a whopping 42% of participants were below average in leadership effectiveness; furthermore, 12% were found to be within the bottom quartile.

It turned out that underperforming HIPOs were lacking in two major skills: the ability to craft a strategic vision and the ability to motivate other employees. After all, being self-motivated and motivating other people are two entirely different skill sets. Imagine an engineer being motivated to do actual engineering work, versus motivating other engineers. While technical and professional expertise is incredibly important in a managerial role, so are leadership qualities – which often have to be developed. 

And while leadership development is of great interest to HR folk, it is so with very good reason.

Why? Because with or without HIPO programs, companies are losing their best employees. 

According to a report by Randstad, 47% of highly educated professionals would seek out and pursue a better opportunity if there weren’t clear pathways for advancement. And our beloved HIPOs are 15% more likely to leave when they are disappointed with future opportunities, according to Gartner data. 

Coupled with a new culture of mass exodus post-pandemic, engagement rates are at their lowest and turnover rates are at their highest. Not to mention, the average cost of replacing just one employee ranges from one-half to two times their annual salary, according to Gallup

Want to guess who’s at the highest risk of an early goodbye? Unfortunately, it's our best and brightest (who are also likely to be the highest paid).

Simply take a look at their effectiveness: in line with the pareto principle, a small proportion of employees drive a large part of the organization’s results and output. This means that the top 5% of employees produce 25% of output and the top 20% produce 80% of output.

Now consider the work they do for your organization and the cost to replace them: HIPOs are incredibly invaluable. And they multiply the value of their teams, too. HIPOs often act as “force multipliers”, and increase each team members’ output by 5-15%, according to HBR.

So, this begs our second pair of questions: 

1) How do you keep these high performers within the organization?

2) How do you take employees with potential from good to great?

Because at the end of the day, what if you could have more employees join the ranks of top performers? How do you take that promising software engineer and turn them into your top technical program manager?

Well, the answer might seem simple: leadership development. And in some ways it is. But there are a number of leadership skills that each person should have – so how do you prioritize? Ideally, you want your future leaders to be effective and tangibly move the needle forward through a strategic vision. But this requires a number of skills, including: critical thinking, empathy, problem solving, and motivating team members, just to name a few. All of which fall under the umbrella of learning innovation.


Innovation training is akin to teaching a person how to fish (i.e. how to think and problem solve), rather than simply giving them a fish (a finite list of strategies they can memorize). 

 – Arooj Sheikh, Corporate Innovation Trainer

If it were as simple as performance equals potential, 82% of managers wouldn’t lack important leadership skills and abilities to perform well on the job, according to Gallup. Most managers are simply promoted because they did well in their previous positions, not because they showed specific managerial skills. It is still possible to make the wrong hire from within the organization (and they can cost you up to 30% of the employee’s first year earnings).

This is simply an opportunity to grow and develop promising employees the right way. 

Learning innovation can help performers develop the ability to think creatively and solve problems within the organization. It helps them develop a strategic vision for the future of the company and use methodologies such as design thinking to deliver on that vision.

Innovation simply helps employees take an existing skill set and broaden its applications to leadership roles. It amplifies their work. And remember that promising software engineer? This is the key to unlocking their potential as your company’s most outstanding technical program manager.

Innovation Training Amplifies High Performers

Innovation teaches you how to articulate the right questions.

Regardless of your methodology of choice, whether it be design thinking or JTBD, a core component of any school of thought around innovation centers around your stakeholders. Whether your stakeholders are customers, other team members, or organizational partners, the first thing you learn is how to understand their needs and motivations around your offerings. Through this, you learn to ask the right questions — and that’s exactly what leads you to the right breakthroughs.

Innovation training makes people better communicators and collaborators.

As you learn how to see from the perspectives of your stakeholders, you become adept at practicing empathy. This translates to becoming a far better communicator and collaborator, especially when you’re dealing with people outside your field. Patrick the project manager has been pestering you on that deadline, but understanding that keeping the team on track are the KPIs he’s graded on (it’s okay, he’s stressed too) will make for a far more pleasant working environment. 

Not to mention, structured exercises and engaging brainstorming sessions improves team dynamics. And when everyone is equally invested in the success of a project, things tend to go a lot more smoothly.

Innovation leads to a state of continuous improvement.

When you are able to recognize assumptions for what they are, it’s easy to realize the importance of little bets. 

Innovation teaches you the importance of iteration: version one will not look like version ten. And that’s okay. Rapid and repeated testing is the key to the best version of anything. Whether you are figuring out the best way to motivate a new team member or brainstorming a new product feature, a testing approach reinforces the pursuit of constant improvement.  

Disseminating this mindset through an organization’s leaders is the best way to keep a company in tip top shape.

Innovation is simply the result of effective problem solving.

According to a report by McKinsey, the #1 skill required for managerial positions is effective problem solving. 

Innovation is simply the result of effective problem solving. Going back to the “learning how to fish” analogy, innovation teaches you to approach a problem and use frameworks to solve it. It’s more than just a list of solutions that you match according to certain types of problems (the “if A then B” format). 

The most important part of this is that it makes an organization’s leaders adaptable. Even if they come across a problem they’ve never encountered before, they’re starting out on strong footing to tackle the problem. When you’re constantly thinking on your feet, you get better at rolling with the punches.

Not to mention, people like to feel fulfilled with their work. If you’re engaging employees through problem solving, they become more invested in what they’re working on – increasing employee engagement overall. 

Innovation helps you develop a strategic vision and strengthen a results orientation

Learning innovation methodologies helps you get the grasp of a new landscape, understand it quickly, and then think strategically about next steps to achieve immediate progress. It teaches you how to productively synthesize information in a way that helps you move the needle forward, taking an organization’s long term goals and objectives into account. 

And once you do have a strategic vision, it becomes far easier to prioritize action items in a way that maximizes progress, strengthening your results orientation along the way.

Innovation is an opportunity for real growth and can increase employee engagement and satisfaction

Finally, innovation is an opportunity for growth. Presenting a challenge such as this is incredibly attractive to high performers and is an opportunity for the company to re-align and re-motivate employees. It reminds employees that they are actively contributing to something that moves the needle forward for the company. It’s as simple as letting your work be meaningful. 

And when employees have ownership over their work, it can reignite the spark that brought them to your company in the first place – even turning around disengaged or underperforming employees. Bringing back the fulfillment factor increases employee satisfaction and engagement, and leaves team members feeling like their roles are full of purpose.

The Takeaways?

Investing in high performance employees can give you a return in spades. It improves employee retention, reduces turnover, and increases employee engagement/satisfaction. With happier employees, you can reduce the cycle of finding replacement hires, running through the onboarding process, and so forth on repeat.

A commitment to upleveling employees within an organization not only opens the doors to exciting new pathways, but it improves employee retention and promotes upward mobility for rising stars within the company. So when that engineer is ready to take their next steps, it’s with you. 

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