By pure definition of the term “high potential leader” (called “HiPo”, for short), a HiPo leader is generally expected to be on a trajectory for a position of larger scope and/or responsibility, once they prove their readiness for the new role or opportunity.

Executive leaders are accountable for utilizing their people in the best way to exceed business metrics. Understandably, it is easy for them to first tap into their pool of HiPos to take on new challenges, because these individuals are both proven and trustworthy. However, not all promotions are wonderful opportunities for an individual HiPo, no matter how good it looks on paper.

And while most promotional opportunities may be perfect for the next step of their career, I frequently coach my high potential clients to remember to speak up and be their own career advocate if the promotion does not align with their lifestyle, passions, and values.

I’ve found that high potential employees frequently feel immense pressure to accept a promotion either because they want to show progression and advancement or because they’re worried that if they say no, it’ll hurt their chances for advancement in the future (being branded as unambitious, unwilling to do what it takes, etc.).

That said, I’ve run into quite a few HiPos who’ve taken the wrong promotion and are now worse off than they were before.


To assist with this time of critical decision-making, here are 4 conditions when a high potential leader should NOT accept a promotion:

1. Based on increased compensation alone

Money and perks alone shouldn’t be the deciding factor of a high potential leader accepting a promotion. The excitement of a few extra dollars in their pocket will quickly wear off if they end up hating the position due to the type of work or increased stress.

I remember when I once accepted a promotional job which was offered to me. It was a $15K increase in salary, and I jumped at the opportunity even though I wasn’t passionate about the job duties. The lack of passion for the role combined with the increased stress of the position left me exhausted daily. I took the job for the short-term increase in spending power and in exchange, my energy, sanity, and health suffered.

2. Based on a specific boss

It’s no secret that great leaders attract great people who want to work for them. Working for a tremendous leader can be game changing! However, great leaders are frequently on succession plans themselves. Taking a role only to work for a particular individual vs ensuring the role will round out their skill set, may increase the risk that the HiPo will leave the organization if that boss leaves for new opportunities themselves.

3. When the new opportunity is a step up but in the wrong direction

HiPos frequently find that new opportunities offered aren’t in the department or job function that they wanted. If a promotion will take them in a step in the wrong direction from the career path that they really want, let they should let it pass. It may be wise for them to express to their leadership the lack of alignment with their career development plan and hold out for a position that will give them the new experiences about which they are passionate.

4. When they will be doing less of what they love

Most promotions will have HiPo’s learning a new set of skills. This can be uncomfortable and confusing, even for high potential leaders. I’m constantly helping my clients navigate these waters safely. In fact, very few people know exactly what they’re doing when they start a new opportunity!

While HiPos should challenge themselves, if a promotion will take them away from the parts of their job that excite them and that they do better than anyone else, it may not be worth it. Doing work where they know their expertise will be valued can make a real impact on their engagement and work satisfaction.

At the end of the day, the choice of whether to accept a promotion is the hands of the high potential employee.

If you are a HiPo yourself and you decide to turn down a promotion, be sure you’re clear on the reasons why. You want to be transparent and explain your reasons simply.

No matter what, always be honest and appreciative of the consideration. You don’t want to impact the next opportunity that comes along.

If you are a manager of a HiPo, use these 4 talking points to help coach your HiPo on whether or not the new opportunity will be good for their career. You may have insights and a perspective that they have not yet considered.

Think you may be considered for a future promotional opportunity and want to brainstorm whether it may be right for your career?  Let’s chat.  

If this article has been helpful, please like it, tweet it or share it with a friend!

P.S.  If you liked this post, I have a sneaky suspicion that you may be interested in joining our community of career-savvy ultra-achievers!