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It’s on us as leaders and human resources professionals to do everything possible to take advantage of our internal talent pools.

Regardless of the maturity of your talent processes, there’s a tried and true approach you can use to help round out your 2023 talent strategy: the talent review.

As an HR Business Partner and HR Leader, the talent review is one of my favorite processes in our annual HR cycle. In my experience, this is often some of my executive leader's favorite processes as well.

I recall from my last talent review cycle a fired-up VP of IT stating that “Focusing on talent is one of the most impactful things I can do as a leader within our organization.”

I couldn’t agree more! Collaborating with leaders across the business on their talent strategies is one of the most important aspects of my role and, based on industry trends, a focus on talent could be the single most impactful thing we do as leaders in 2023.

In this article, I’ll take you through

What is a talent review?

Talent review is the process through which leaders assess their talent based on both their performance and their potential. This is a critical process, contributing to your overall talent strategy, that helps paint a picture of:

  1. What you have today from a talent perspective
  2. What capabilities you’ll need as you move into the future 
  3. Any gaps you need to fill.

Why conduct a talent review?

The primary reason for conducting talent reviews is to get a deeper understanding of your talent slate. This enables many benefits for your organization, including: 

  • Understanding the critical priorities faced by your organization and ensuring that you have the right talent needed to meet current and future business needs 
  • Gaining a deeper understanding of who your high-potential colleagues are, allowing you to both concertedly develop them and put them in places to bring the most value to your organization 
  • Mitigating future talent risks by developing a strong internal bench of talent while simultaneously understanding what talent you need to ‘buy’ externally.

In short, this process is critical for ensuring you have the talent you need to meet the ongoing needs of your business.

What should a talent review include?

A mature talent review process should accomplish the following:

  1. Assess your talent based on performance and potential
  2. Identify high-potential employees within your organization 
  3. Identify successors for critical roles (generally all leadership positions, plus other critical/at-risk skill sets)
  4. Jump start the process of developing talent by aligning on development next steps.

Who should perform a talent review?

As strategic partners to the business, HR practitioners often play an enablement role to the leaders they partner with. This is the best way to think about the talent review process.  

In order to be successful, talent reviews cannot be viewed as ‘just another HR thing.’ Your talent review process essentially should be HR-facilitated, but business leader-owned.

This means your business leaders are accountable for:

  • Championing/communicating the value of the process 
  • Ensuring participating leaders are held accountable for fully contributing to the process (pre-work, talent review meeting, action items) 
  • Actively leading and participating in talent review meetings 
  • Leveraging the results of the talent review to enable talent strategy (i.e., develop specific talent, look to bring external skills/competencies, etc.).

Your HR/Talent Management team should be accountable for the following: 

  • Defining the process 
  • Creating tools/resources/other materials needed to execute 
  • Educating leaders on the process and tools 
  • Helping facilitate the leader-lead talent review sessions 
  • Collaborating with the leadership team to create development plans for critical talent and refine talent strategy to ensure future success of the organization 
  • Challenging leaders to think critically/accurately rate their employees based upon defined criteria.

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How to conduct a talent review

Before going into how to conduct a talent review, a word on cadence.

If possible, you should aim to meet once a quarter to talk about your talent. This will keep your data fresh, talent conversations top of mind, and overall afford you more flexibility and opportunity.

However, depending on your organizational needs, bi-annually, or, minimally, annual talent meetings will also suffice.

1. Define and communicate your talent review process

Unless you already have an existing talent review process you can dust off and use as a starting place, your first step will be to define and educate your leaders around your new talent review process.  

Considering the following which you’ll need to define: 

How you will rate your talent

How your organization defines “performance” and “potential” is the cornerstone of how you’ll rate your colleagues through your Talent Review process.  

Presumably, your organization already has a well-established performance management process (if not check out this great read to help get you started). 

You do not want to reinvent the wheel: your talent review process should seamlessly integrate into all your HR processes, so your best bet is to be consistent with how your organization already defines performance via performance reviews/your performance management process.

Potential is a bit more intangible and can be a bit more poetic to define. Organizations such as Korn Ferry have put extensive research into potential that you can lean on.  

Korn Ferry’s model includes 18 qualities that are strong indicators of potential, for example leadership traits, learning ability, and capacity for problem-solving. 

How you define potential at your organization is going to be a personal decision based on the unique complexities and needs of your company. However, I’d encourage you to consider two things as part of your definition:

(1) Promotability—does the leadership team believe an individual has the ability to be promoted into high-level roles?  

(2) Readiness—how soon will an individual be ready for their next move?  Are they ready now (literally could assume the role now if it was vacated)? Will they be ready soon (within the next one to three years)? Or will it take some time to prepare them for future opportunities (will take three-plus years to develop towards the role)?  

Your approach to succession slates

Formally documenting your succession is essential in helping you understand who you need to develop to get ready in case someone vacates their role.  

Further, this gives you clear visibility into what gaps you have that you need to work to close. 

The best practice for succession slates would be to have a succession plan for all critical roles in your organization. 

From my experience, this includes 

  1. All leadership positions
  2. Any other roles that are business critical where we’d need to have a plan in place to mitigate disruption if an incumbent left the position
  3. Any niche/hard-to-fill positions.

Who is in scope? 

While the best practice would be to include your entire organization in the talent review, this may not be practical based on the size of your organization or other constraints.

If you do need to be choosy about which audiences are in scope for your review, make sure to clearly communicate those participants who are in scope.

The tools you will use

How you capture this information will vary based on the tools at your disposal. Many human resources information systems or talent management systems offer tools designed to help support your talent review and succession planning processes. 

If you don’t have an HR tech solution capable of assisting, there’s nothing wrong with leaning on Excel, PowerPoint, or another simple solution to document this critical information.  

One of the prevalent tools used to support the talent review is the 9 box. This simple but effective tool provides a neat framework to rate colleagues based on their performance and potential. This creates a common language for your leaders to leverage when calibrating their teams.

9 box grid infographic
The 9-Box grid. Get template here.

How you will communicate 

Once your process has been defined, it’s essential that you clearly communicate this out to all leaders who will contribute to the process. 

Remember, talent review should be business leader owned, HR facilitated. This means it’s critical that you educate your leaders on the process, the frequency of the review, key definitions, etc. so that they can take ownership.  

2. Have your leaders do their homework 

Part of your communication approach will include the expectations of your leaders as they prepare to attend live talent review meetings.  

Generally, this expectation would be that leaders rate all of their colleagues against the performance/potential definitions you’ve communicated and prepare bullets/talking points to help justify their ratings. 

Additionally, they should identify if they have any successors who could take their role if they vacated their position and what kind of development those successors would need to be ready now to assume their position.

3. Host Talent Review meetings 

Usually, talent review meetings work their way up the leadership hierarchy, starting first with meetings with lower-level leaders and working their way up the executive leadership level.  

The best practice for talent review would be to host live sessions of all the managers reporting up to a business leader. This allows the leadership team to collaborate on how they rate their employees, collect feedback from each other to gain additional perspective, and discuss how best to leverage the entire team’s talent to accomplish business needs. 

There’re many ways you can approach these types of discussions, but the simplest approach I’ve found is to give each leader a moment in the spotlight to highlight their team. Another approach is to discuss colleagues based on job level/pay grade.

This is a great way to ensure that you’re calibrating employees correctly against peers with similar expectations. Either approach, or a hybrid leveraging both, can be appropriate. When in doubt, let the leader of the group decide what works best for them. 

One thing to be prepared for as a facilitator of a talent review is the passion that leaders have for their people.

I’ve seen many a heated and contentious debate about how employees end up getting rated through the process. As a facilitator, it’s essential that you both challenge participants to think objectively about their colleagues and encourage them to disagree respectfully to ensure a transparent and healthy dialogue.

4. Analyze your data (but avoid analysis paralysis) 

Take time to collate and analyze your data. This information will provide your executive leadership team with crucial insights into the current state of talent within their organization.

The focus of your analysis should be around ensuring you have both the quality and quantity of talent needed to meet your business objectives. This allows your executive team to hone both their talent and business strategies.  

But avoid the analysis paralysis trap! Once you’ve completed your Talent Review meetings, you now have an amazing amount of rich talent data at your fingertips. This data however provides no value unless you take action against it.  

A few things I would recommend to help avoid falling into the analysis paralysis trap:

  1. Set yourself a deadline to report to leadership—without a definitive deadline set,  it’s easy to go deep down the analysis rabbit hole. Promised deadlines for reporting out to leadership forces your hand and prevents you from spending too much time overthinking the data.
  2. Limit the scope of what you’ll initially report on—limiting your focus is a great way to ensure you don’t let perfection get in the way of progress. Try focusing on only certain demographics first; perhaps one business segment, one layer of leadership that’s currently a priority, or another group that needs extra support. You can always go back and go deeper into the data over time. 
  3. Ask for help—if you don’t know where to focus your time and energy, don’t be afraid to ask your customers (the business leadership team)! Soliciting your leaders’ feedback on what’s most important for them regarding realizing their business goals is a great way to limit your scope and focus your attention on what truly matters.

5. Create meaningful, outcome-oriented action plans 

Leaders and HR professionals should leverage the data to create pointed, outcome-oriented development plans for colleagues.  

This could include (but isn’t limited to) employee-specific plans for development opportunities like

  1. Stretch assignments to help develop new skill sets 
  2. New roles to ensure we’re putting our brightest talent against our biggest and most complex organizational challenges
  3. Mentorship opportunities to network and develop through social learning
  4. Formal learning and development opportunities like coursework or development programs.

Talent review best practices

Let’s take a look at some best practices you can employ through both the development and delivery of your talent review.  

Map back to your talent strategy 

If you’ve read any of my other articles for People Managing People, you may have noticed that I’m a talent strategy zealot

Like all HR solutions, it’s essential that your talent review process helps further your strategic talent goals. This ensures that all of your talent review processes will work seamlessly with your other talent-related processes.

Before launching your talent review, it’s always worth a gut check to make sure that the efforts you’re putting in are going to enable your overall strategy. Try asking yourself questions like:

  • What critical business imperatives must we meet? How will our talent review process enable these critical imperatives?
  • What competencies, skills, behaviors and values are we trying to spark across our organization?  What leadership mindsets or key behaviors are we trying to drive? Do our high-potential employees/leaders identified through talent review exhibit these key traits that we value? 
  • Are there underrepresented demographics within our employee and/or leadership population? How can we leverage our talent review process to accelerate our DEI efforts?

If your talent review isn’t helping address key questions akin to these, it’s worth going back to the drawing board to ensure everything you do meticulously maps back to your talent strategy.  

Be agile

There still seem to be a lot of naysayers around agile HR transformation. It seems like too often we hear that “agile only applies to Digital and Tech teams” or “we aren’t ready for agile” or “Why fix what isn’t broken” (hint—it’s probably broken).  

Whether HR leaders are ready to hear it or not, we aren’t always as innovative as we think we are. Agile methodologies have the ability to dramatically enhance your HR solution delivery.  

I’d encourage you to consider the following agile principles as you embark on your organizational talent review journey.  

  1. Co-develop with the business—developing in partnership with the business leaders, who will use your talent reviews, helps ensure that you incorporate their wants and needs into the process. In agile, customer satisfaction comes first and this is a great way to make sure your customers (the leaders who will use the process) buy into and adopt your new Talent Review process.
  1. Create Simplicity—agile processes are all about creating simplicity, releasing minimum viable products (MVPs), and ensuring that you meet your customer's needs and deliver quickly. Don’t let your need for perfection get in the way of quickly delivering something great for your organization.
  1. Iterative Development—iteratively developing your talent review process increases your ‘speed to market’ and allows you to collect feedback and make refinements to ensure its efficacy and effectiveness in the future.

Related read: How To Run Agile HR Projects Like A World-Class Product Team

Avoid biases and stale talent data 

Whether it's recency bias, confirmation bias, the halo/horns effect, or a litany of other biases that can impact leaders decision making, it’s essential that your Talent Review process remains free of all biases.

The purpose of assessing our talent is to ensure that you have a completely objective picture of your talent pool, who to invest in, and where you need to develop or bring in talent. You’ll never be able to get a clear picture of this if your data is riddled with biases.

So how do you avoid biases in your review process? Here’re some tips:

  1. Share common biases with your managers—one of the simplest ways to counter biases is to merely call your leaders’ attention to the biases that exist. Even your best people leaders are human and will have their inherent biases. Giving participants in the process insight into the biases that might trip them up prior to them assessing their talent can help them take a step back and go eyes wide open into an unbiased talent review.
  2. Clearly communicate process and definitions—A clearly defined process, with explicit definitions of what it means to be high performing and high potential, is critical to ensuring consistent execution of your talent review. There should be no ambiguity in the process, and it should be clearly communicated to all involved parties to ensure that leaders across your organization are all applying the same lens when assessing their people. 
  3. Collaborate!—having leadership teams work together to assess their people is a key mechanism in ensuring consistency in how your employees are assessed. This is why I strongly recommend hosting talent review meetings regularly with your leadership team: hashing this information out live allows managers to understand the logic being applied to others and establish consistency. This also allows managers to provide feedback to their peers about their experiences working with each other’s employees.
  4. Avoid stale data—just because an employee was rated highly in years past doesn’t mean they get a free pass when you repeat the process, and the same goes if they have been a mid-tier performer. Talent data is highly fluid and should be viewed as living and breathing. Eliminating biases and taking a fresh look at your talent helps ensure you aren’t plagued by stale data that can hold back your overall talent imperatives.

Leverage technology to scale your processes 

While it’s possible to get by without technology support, large and growing organizations will especially benefit from technology solutions designed to help support your talent review process. 

As Quantum Workplace suggests, “find a tool that: 

  • Helps you capture talent data throughout the year
  • Promotes ongoing collaboration and discussions among leaders
  • Provides a real-time snapshot of your entire talent pool
  • Educates you on talent development best practices”

My recommendation is to keep with the agile approach discussed above. Start with a simple process and get your bearings.

Once you have established an approach that works for your organization, you can then refine it further by examining what type of technology solutions are available to help you streamline.  

It’s a competitive world 

It’s always good to start a new year with introspection, and the talent review process is a great way to do that at your organization. As I mentioned above though, aiming for a quarterly cadence is ideal.

Talent reviews have an important part to play in identifying and developing your top talent. As Emily Rose McRae, who oversees Gartner’s HR Future of Work and Talent Analytics work, recently shared via an interview with CNBC

“The talent shortage that we talked about throughout 2022 hasn’t gone away,” McRae says. “So, you’re in a situation where it’s harder to get headcount, and you have a desperate need for talent.”

With competition so fierce, you can’t afford to let high performers go overlooked and leave for a rival.

There are many tools in your toolbox when it comes to talent—I’d encourage you to make sure that the talent review process is one you lean into. 

Some further resources to help you develop talent in your organization:

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By Alex Link

Alex is a HR Director for a Fortune 4 organization with a passion for developing the leaders of tomorrow. He has a Masters of Science in Human Resources and Labor Relations and has extensive experience in HR, Leadership Development, Talent Management, Learning and Development, and more. When not focused on helping people realize their career aspirations, he enjoys playing guitar, reading sci-fi fantasy novels, relaxing with his wife, and playing with their two young children.