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In many organizations, talent reviews are little more than a paper shuffle.

HR spends a ludicrous amount of time persuading business leaders to place employees in one of nine little boxes, based on the person’s perceived performance and potential, then facilitates a series of heated debates about those placements.

The process has two primary goals: (1) identify talent with the greatest likelihood of making a value-added contribution to the organization and (2) decide how to transform that potential benefit into a reality.

On the surface, both seem logical. The trouble is companies often fail at the first and barely attempt the second. 

The lackluster effort typically results in a neatly crafted talent review and succession planning binder that languishes on the HR bookshelf until the following year’s meeting. 

To avoid proliferating this fruitless paper chase, consider incorporating these six actions into your talent review process.

Stop Sweating the Performance Factor 

Employees will sometimes question their talent review scores, but a manager can easily settle those challenges by presenting a fact-based assessment of their performance. 

Even competency ratings can be defended by a similar presentation of objectively observed behavioral indicators.

Performance is simple. An employee and manager agree on what should be done (goals) and how it should be done (competencies) and then the employee’s actual results are measured against those goals.

So, even if an employee initially disagrees with or is disappointed by the performance evaluation, he or she can ultimately come to accept the rating and work toward improvement given a reasonable rationale. 

Talent reviews simply look at sustained performance—that is performance over time and varying situations. 

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Stop Pretending You Can Predict Potential

Potential ratings, however, are not nearly as easy to assign or defend. Left to their own devices, even the most astute leaders will default to squishy language and anecdotal evidence when attempting to rate an employee’s potential. 

Some organizations will borrow verbiage from consulting companies, but the verbose and generic descriptors only serve to further complicate the meaning and cast doubt on the measurement’s validity.

The pushback from employees makes sense when you consider what that one word–potential— is intended to measure:

  • Career ability (I can do it)
  • Aspiration (I want to do it)
  • Engagement (I want to do it here, at this organization).  

It’s almost laughable. Without validated, job-specific assessment, how can a manager accurately assess an employee’s ability? And how can they tell someone with a straight face that they have limited career aspirations and thus no room to grow? Aspiration is internal – think intrinsic motivation. 

To be fair, with the right tools, engagement can be measured, but it’s often a circular argument. If employees perceive that they are viewed or even indirectly treated as though they have no ambition or potential, why would their engagement ever be high?

Part of the reason organizations are reluctant to share their talent review assessments with employees is that they have no confidence in the validity of their potential scores.

If companies want to use something other than performance trends as a rationale for investing in certain employees, they must first get potential ratings right. That means clearly and accurately defining the term or dropping it completely.

Clarify What is Expected From and Offered To Employees

Assuming a company is confident in its talent review scoring system, it should honor its employee value proposition by providing transparent communication to both those deemed as “High Potential” (HiPos) and those who aren’t.

Key Talent (HiPos) will want to know things like:

  • Does this advance other opportunities for me such as promotions, international assignments, and high-profile projects?
  • Will I be provided with additional resources (coaching, classes, mentors, etc.)? 
  • What can I expect in terms of visibility with leadership? And by the way, (gulp)…what does the company expect of me now… and what happens if I can’t deliver?
  • By the way, how do I stay on the HiPo list and continue to grow?

Non-key talent everyone else) may want to know things like: 

  • How do I up my game and get in the HiPo group?
  • Are there resources to help me do so or am I on my own? 
  • Can I stay in the non-key talent pool indefinitely? 
  • What’s the company’s “failure” tolerance? 
  • Will I be branded with the non-key moniker forever or is the assessment honestly and objectively refreshed each year? 

Act on “Implied” Promises

Organizations will get points for transparency, but the kudos will evaporate quickly if people leaders aren’t enabled to follow through on the answers provided. 

This requires a strong company culture, well-designed HR practices, and supportive managers. 

For example, leaders can verbally support talent movement, and HR can build a career ladder infrastructure, but, if managers thrive in a culture that allows them to horde talent, all will be lost. 

To get talent management right you have to do more than make it appealing for employees and senior leaders to participate, you must reward managers who grease the wheels of participation.

Visibly Reward Talent Developers

Companies need to formalize and encourage the internal practice of a phenomenon that occurs naturally in the wider talent market. 

If you watch workers move between organizations within an industry, you’ll notice that the pattern of travel is not random. Yes, employees join companies and leave managers, but the reverse is also true. Many times, employees are wooed away by prior managers. 

Great leaders have gravity, the kind that entices people to follow them. Imagine the employee brand, engagement, and performance-based culture an organization could create if it actively encouraged managers to be talent developers. 

Leveraging this unspoken dynamic of, “If you want to get somewhere at (insert company), work for that person,” would dramatically reduce turnover, sparking savings in staffing, training, and production. 

Obtain Proof of Concept

Organizations are usually skittish when it comes to comprehensive change, especially if it involves upping the level of candor. 

In larger organizations, HR can turn this challenge into an opportunity by volunteering to pilot the new process. Human resources leaders can adopt these ideals and, after conducting a transparent talent review, take the following actions to capitalize on the value created:

  • Help employees craft meaningful individual development plans (IDP) that address a variety of goals such as promotion, skills development, or a lateral move.
  • Align IDPs to real work and coach employees using a deliberate practice model that sparks measurable improvement.
  • Answer tough questions such as: how do I get promoted? Is it “too late” to take a lateral move? How am I viewed by leadership? What support is available to me? 
  • Track progress and IDP completions, noting the win for the employee, the company, and the manager. Align to long-term succession planning actions where appropriate.
  • Reward managers for making good people-based decisions.

If talent reviews are to offer actual value, they must be valid, transparent, and believable. After all, when an external recruiter calls with an offer, it’s real. There’s no smoke-filled room. No nine-box nonsense. That’s what internal talent managers are really up against. 

Approach an employee with vague language and some half-hearted, mysterious explanation of how their “potential” was rated and all you’ll get is a resignation letter.

Interested in hearing your thoughts on the above so either leave something in the comments of over in the People Managing People Community, a supportive community of HR and business leaders passionate about building organizations of the future.

For a more in-depth article on actually conducting a review, check out Alex Link's excellent article How To Perform A Talent Review In 5 Steps.

Tim Toterhi
By Tim Toterhi

Tim is a CHRO passionate about slashing bureaucracy and rethinking old thinking. He’s a TEDx speaker, ICF certified coach, and the author of several books including The Introvert's Guide to Job Hunting. He has over 20 years of management experience in the Americas, Europe, and Asia. He’s been quoted in publications such as Fast Company, Forbes, Newsweek, and the HuffPost as well as profiled in the book, Magnificent Leadership.