Question: Developing a "top talent" pipeline

In our company, we find line managers are biased towards current performance in their recommendations about an employee.

For example, they do not identify cases where a talented, but disengaged, employee can perhaps add much greater value in a different role. Or, flag a case where a really good performer can't do much else.

Should we spend more time training line managers on this distinction, or are we better off having a separate process to identify our high potential employees?

Our aim is to build leadership and subject matter expert pipeline for a 300 employee financial services organization, in the next 3-5 years.

7 Expert Insights

I find it is helpful to define the different elements that you are trying to determine.  For example performance is the rating provided for the last performance period.  Potential is how many levels do you feel this individual can assume (define the levels). Then readiness, how ready are they to move to the next level.  Someone who is a high performer and has high potential but was just promoted is not yet ready for the next move.  By looking at all three and providing separate ratings for each you can help managers understand the difference between each and how they work together.

Some organizations will use a nine box approach where they will designate performance on one axis and potential on the other.  For those who are high performers and high potential you can then determine the level of readiness for increased responsibility.  For those with good potential and good performance you would use a different set of development tools for them. Reference:

An added step is to review the results in a Senior Management Group and come to consensus.  Sometimes other leaders are able to see people differently. Having alignment will help in the plans and in filling internal positions.

The short answer is YES!

Often the source of disengagement or poor performance can be linked to a bad fit. If HR has done the due diligence on the hire in the first place then the employee in question isn't without skills, or talents. However in a climate where people want a job/any job, they will often present what others want to hear in order to get the job, even if it doesn't necessarily include what they'd love to be doing. Then over time, the inner friction of being assigned a role/ task that isn't a great fit for them begins to grate. Over and over they become more and more aware of not being used for what they love or are great at.

You can spend the time recycling the performance appraisals and using carrot-and-stick after carrot-and-stick in the attempt to increase their performance but what's really being wanted is a reassignment to a better fit.

If managers can't discern the value/talents/strengths in a separate sense and are seeking just to motivate them to get the job done they need them to do, then a huge opportunity is being missed. And it isn't rocket science to know that bringing in someone new vs. helping others already in the organization succeed is a costly venture. This churn will cost not only resources of cash and energy but it also affects productivity while the 'new kid' phases in.

The responsibility of building a leadership pipeline lies with top management. The process I use helps to eliminate the distortions you mention since several key steps are taken:

1. Senior managers own the process.
2. The process is opened to all employees to put their "hat in the ring." This helps to counter the biases above as well as give employees the knowledge that the company is interested in their long-term development and that the process is transparent.
3. Individuals are assessed on current performance (based on performance reviews), potential (the ability to move to the next level based on assessing them against identified leadership competencies), desire (does the person want to move up in the organization - internal motivation can result in amazing results), and readiness (how long before the person is ready for the next level or the one after that).
4. The senior managers begin by assessing the individuals who step forward on performance - if there are any performance issues the person needs to be given that feedback and taken out of the process at that point.
5. Next, the senior managers interview the remaining employees for desire and potential using a structured interview format - they all use the same questions and selected leadership competencies.
6. A final aspect is to have the individuals interviewed, not by their senior manager, but the individual not in their formal reporting structure. This helps to address the biases you spoke of in your question.
7. The managers then come back together and discuss what they found out about each person.
8. The high-potentials are then selected, action plans are created to address the leadership development needs, and mentors assigned to help support their growth.  

I have seen measurable and sustainable outcomes with this process.

Good luck.

It's not surprising to hear that "line managers are biased toward current performance in their recommendations about an employee". The same was very likely true in their case. Proficiency as an individual contributor is not uncommonly the primary basis for promotion into management... and the source of ongoing frustration for both that manager and the managed.

A new supervisor will likely, and correctly perceive that she can do the job better than the people who report to her. In fact, it is much easier to do it herself than to go through the agonies of helping to bring someone else up to speed. The fact that our new supervisor does not realize how her job has changed is a black mark on the talent management capability of the organization.

High-performing organizations understand the critical role management plays in that high performance, and they invest in management and leadership development accordingly. It would be awkward and inefficient for HR to create a parallel process to line management in order to manage talent. Much better to develop management skills and knowledge and identify useful tools to assist those line managers in building a top talent pipeline. Oh... and reward them for it!

I love your goal. It will -- and should -- be disruptive. Be sure you assess your group's capacity to change, and that the leadership has a commitment to make this happen, not just "see if it will work."

1. Line managers are biased towards current performance because that's what your culture rewards. If you want this to shift, you have to shift what their rewards are based on, then support them in being able to identify high potential.
2. I'm guessing that line managers do not have a large enough view of your company's roles, so before you train them in identifying high-potentials, you want to look at your entire org system. Line managers can certainly be part of the solution but they can not own it fully.
3. The  leadership team has to own talent development. There are appropriate responsibilities at each level of the org. to support the identifying and development process, and the leadership team are the drivers of the initiative.
4. Given your goal to build leadership/SMEs in next 3-5 years, my questions would be:  
a. who's responsible for this goal?
b. what in the current system needs to change to have the goal be met? (compensation structure? role clarity, etc)
c. what in the current culture (mind-set/sacred cows) needs to change?
5. I'd suggest assessing your current 300 people and creating a profile of talent.  Performance Style & Ambitions is a great tool, and has a robust back end to dynamically look at strengths, trends of who's in the talent pool. I'd be happy to show you online -- please contact me.

Don't start this unless the leadership isn't just aligned on the goal, but is clear that they will have to change, to make it happen. They will have to model the goal of spotting/developing talent before it becomes "normal".

I would suggest you start by determining if you have any "Rock Stars" on board.  If you do dig into what makes them different?  How do they work differently from the others?  What are their values? How do they deal with stress? How do they share or not share with the other employees?  Once you have this worked out, figure out how to get others to aspire to become "Rock Stars". Don't try to duplicate them.

For starters, the line managers need to be trained on widening their perspective beyond mere performance of employees by observing other behaviors, determining why some are disengaged, and quite possibly building better relationships with employees whose performance is below expectations.  It might be the line managers fault that some employees are not performing adequately.

Next, I would determine why some employees are not engaged, focused on the organization vision and determine how to improve their performance.

I might also meet with both the line managers and disengaged employees to discuss what is causing the managerial bias and employee disengagement.  There might be some differences between the manager and employee that need resolved and smoothed out.

As a last resort, a change in line manager and/or employee might be required. Not the most favorable of resolutions; however, after all else fails to work, something has to give.

Good luck resolving the problem.