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The Hare and the Tortoise

Most organisations seeking to create a Talent Pool are not assessing 2 key attributes of future senior managers, due to the limitations of conventional assessment methods.  How can we take a completely new approach that ensures that money is consistently invested in the best talent?

Tube Lines Case Study

“I’m worried that we don’t have the right people in our Talent Pool – it’s full of confident self-promoters, but I’m sure that somewhere out there are some great people who are invisible to me, working quietly away and achieving good results.”  Director, Global Utility.

“Some of the people in our High Potential programme have an expectation that it is HR’s job to find them jobs and opportunities so that they progress fast.”  Head of Talent, Engineering Company.  

“We invest a lot in developing our High Potentials, but while some apply the learning and streak ahead, others don’t really seize the opportunities and step up in the way that we’d hoped.” Head of Talent, Financial Services Company.   

Anyone responsible for identifying and developing high potentials will recognise these problems – but is there a solution?

What is “high potential” and why are our selection methods failing to identify it? 

We have researched ‘high potential’ both in the literature and by conducting research interviews with Directors and senior managers in a number of organisations.  We explored the exact behaviours that mark people out as high potentials to these senior people.

Reviewing the highly successful senior managers across many organisations leads to one definite conclusion; regardless of the detail of your potential model, there is one characteristic that all successful senior managers have in common.

Purely and simply, it is Drive.  

The one key characteristic that consistently marks out high fliers is that they have higher energy levels than other people, and they focus this energy to achieve important long-term business results despite a huge workload.

A consistently high level of drive and focused energy isn’t something you can learn.  And it isn’t something you can measure over a 1-day Assessment Centre.  

There is a second key requirement we should be assessing in our High Potentials, however. That is their personal commitment to learn and develop.  

Without this, senior people are a major risk when it comes to the need to reinvent yourself to support a constantly changing and evolving organisation.  They are not ‘future-proof’.  Again this is not a skill that is easily imparted, it is a core attitude and a set of behaviours.  Can talent processes be designed to reward and encourage this attitude and behaviour?

Why are Assessment Centres not the best way to identify your high potential people? 

Before moving on to some new ideas on how to selectively focus our talent spend on people with these characteristics, let’s first look at why Assessment Centres may not be the best way to identify your high potential people.

Assessment Centres (they may be called Development Centres, but if the outcome is entry to a Talent Pool or not, their primary role is assessment, with development falling second) have one major weakness as a way of entering the Talent Pool.  

Assessment Centres pretty much invariably demotivate 60% of people – the 60% who are not selected, who feel as if someone has decided there is no bright future for them in the organisation.  

This alone is a major concern.  Do you want to demotivate 60% of the people who have a chance at being on your talent programme?  Even when you provide development reports, excellent feedback, and enthusiastic support for their subsequent learning, ask the people who were NOT selected into your Talent Pool whether they found it a motivating experience.

There are ways around this, which we’ll come to.  There are however other disadvantages of Assessment Centres:
  • They are a sprint not a marathon.  Focused drive and energy is a quality best shown over the long term, in making important things happen despite a heavy workload.
  • They favour extraverts – the quick-off-the-mark ‘Hares’, who dominate group discussions by evolving their ideas in discussion, over introverted ‘Tortoises’ who do their best work when they have time to reflect and plan.
  • They can’t assess commitment to learning until after the AC is over.  It is during the feedback process and the 6 months following, that this characteristic is demonstrated.

A radical rethink of the talent process

To recap on the underlying characteristics of people who succeed at the highest level, we are looking for people who:
  • have higher energy levels than other people, and focus this energy to achieve important long-term business results despite being busy with their day job
  • are future proof because they show a personal commitment to learn and develop.
Everything else is either trainable or manageable; for example, we all know successful senior managers who are not good at networking, but have developed strategies like working breakfasts to stay in touch with people on the frontline.  We all know people who are not good at analysis, but great at spotting and recruiting excellent analysts to inform their decisions.

So how do we pick out the people with these two qualities?

Radical questions:
  1. “Why do we need to decide quickly, over a 1-day Assessment Centre?” The two key qualities are not easily assessed in a single day, because many people can show focused energy over a single day. And on that day, the priorities are set for them via a series of tasks to focus on in order.  This is very different to making something happen over several months, while still handling all the urgencies of normal work.
  2. “Why do we commit to a large spend on an individual when they enter the talent pool?”  Could we invest more money in the people who use it best? Could we allow those with the highest potential to emerge over time, and concentrate our talent spend increasingly on them?

A radical approach to entry to the Talent Pool

Entry to the Talent Pool can be designed to favour self-directed people.

For example, you can maximise transparency by inviting self-nominations.  One of our clients texted every company mobile phone with the message “Do you think you have more to offer?” with an invitation to apply to join the fast track talent pool.

You can shortlist people by asking them to deliver a result, on their own initiative, over time.

For example, people who are interested in entering the talent pool can be set an assignment that requires them to use their initiative to add value to the organisation, and produce a highly focused result (eg a 1-page report). Support material and coaching can be designed to be available for those with energy, but not spoon-fed.

The key principle is that to enter the Talent Pool, people need to be self-directed and focused enough to add real value and drive their own learning, while doing their day job, and with no one pushing them.

A radical approach to progression through the Talent Process

People who do a great job at this entry task are offered the chance to attend a Development Centre with senior managers as assessors, increasing their visibility and chance for feedback.  Explain the amount of money you are investing in them.  Explain that you will be following up in 6 months to see the value they have taken from it.  

For those who didn’t provide good calibre work in the entry process, offer a short workshop coaching them in how to do this more effectively, and see if they a) attend and b) try again.  Give points for persistence and improvement on their second attempt.

Note that EVERYONE who submits something gets a reward.  The Development Centre motivates all, because now it is an end in itself – “I’ve been identified as talented, and the organisation is spending money on my development”.

Ask them to submit a report on what they have done with the information from the Development Centre, in order to earn the right to move onto the next element of the talent process.  

Typically this should be a career management workshop that promotes self-directed career action.  As an example, T&P’s Drive Your Career! gives facts from research into fast track careers and gives very practical strategies that participants can use to become visible, build a network and reputation and generate career opportunities.

Key principle for progression:

Every step of the talent process should require people to prove that the last investment in them paid dividends, so they have earned the right to more investment.  

So to get the next investment after Drive Your Career!, participants need to show they have started using the career strategies associated with fast track careers.  They should have taken action to become more visible, build their network and reputation, and started using tactics to create the kind of career opportunities they want.  

Subsequently, you can design a range of innovative opportunities to learn, develop, and gain exposure at senior levels through your Talent Process.  For example, secondments assisting Directors, attending external courses and applying the learning, working on business projects with other talented people, with a senior sponsor and coach.  

Track how fast people progress through your talent process, and what they are achieving in their day job at the same time.

How does this help with our initial problems?

So to come full circle to the original problems:

“I’m worried that we don’t have the right people in our Talent Pool – it’s full of confident self-promoters, but I’m sure that somewhere out there are some brilliant people who are invisible to me, working quietly away and achieving great results.”  The entry process allows all types of people who have focused drive and energy to enter the talent pool.  Drive Your Career! gives everyone the skills to become visible – if they have the drive and focused energy to apply the learning.

“Some of the people in our High Potential programme have an expectation that it is HR’s job to find them jobs and opportunities so that they progress fast.”  The action they need to take to create their own career opportunities is made explicit on Drive Your Career, and they won’t progress further until they demonstrate self-directed career action.

“We invest a lot in developing our High Potentials, but while some apply the learning and streak ahead, others don’t really seize the opportunities and step up in the way that we’d hoped.” Stepping up is a requirement; if they don’t actively use and apply the development you provide, you don’t invest more money in them.