Tuesday, February 17, 2009

To Tell or Not to Tell: Grooming High Potentials

"To tell or not to tell, that is the question; Whether 'tis better to be forthright And tell high potentials of their status, Or to be silent and let them know nothing."

Just as Hamlet faced a critical decision, this parody on his soliloquy illustrates that talent managers do, too. The state of the economy has made organizations more introspective as they look for ways to develop and retain top talent. Informing - or not informing - high potentials of their status can impact whether they stay or go. Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to this controversial question: Tell or don't tell?"

This notion of transparency continues to be a complicated issue," said Lynne Morton, co-founder and chief operating office of TalentScope, a provider of talent management solutions. "It is important to tell people they have been identified as high potentials. However, it requires a corporate culture that supports and manages the expectations of people."

A lot of [companies] have said to me, 'It's opening up Pandora's Box; we don't want to do it.' The reason is because they're afraid of their inability to manage the expectation[ s]," she explained.

If it's not done right, telling can be harmful to an organization's health. But if talent managers can manage the expectations that come along with telling, the end result is not only better retention of top talent, it also sends a clear message to the workforce about which qualities make good leaders."

When you're looking to identify and develop high-potential employees, you're [letting those] individual[s] know how important they are to the organization, how you recognize their unique abilities [and how] you want them stay and grow with the company," said Patrick Sweeney, executive vice president of Caliper, an international management consulting firm that developed the Caliper Profile, a personality assessment tool."

It also allows the rest of the individuals in the organization to see not just the individual you value but the qualities you value. It really brings to life the values of the organization and what you stand for when you identify and recognize people."

Should Every Organization Tell?

Telling is not the right decision for every organization, as doing so depends on corporate culture.

Even though Ken Driscoll, the director of the talent management group at Navistar Inc., an international truck and engine corporation, believes high potentials should be told, his organization does not embrace the practice, and some employees have quit without knowing they were identified as high potential.

Because there are differences of opinion across the four business units, the leaders of each unit make their own decisions about whether to tell or not, which Driscoll said can lead to problems."

As people transfer from one business unit to another, it can create confusion," he explained. "But for us, to mandate that in our organization or say we're going to adopt that [wouldn't] be wise either. Leadership has to believe that's the right approach.

Driscoll said if there is a policy to tell, there must be buy-in from the organization at-large, and the organization should prepare the employees for the change."

It's something that has to grow organically in an organization," he said. "You can't say, 'We're going to be a transparent organization' if you don't help people understand why it's important, why we communicate it and then give them tools to actually carry it out."

If Navistar ever implements this policy, Driscoll said his organization would be carefull how it constructed and voiced that message."

People need to understand how the organization views them," he said. "But you can't set up any kind of expectation or imply promise. Once you work through all of that, you sit down with someone and just tell them, 'Based on the evidence, we believe you have the potential to step into some higher leadership roles, and we want to provide you with some development opportunities.' That's a powerful message to send to people."

Morton said there are two challenges in telling high potentials of their status, how to manage their expectations once identified and how to manage those who are not identified. These challenges often are a deterrent to telling, she said.

To manage a high potential's expectations, organizations first need to define what a high potential is before informing an employee he or she is one. Does it mean the employee is going to assume a leadership position within the next two years? Does it means he or she will receive more development? Or does it mean something entirely different?"

Everyone likes to be praised," Morton said. "But in a business context, I want to know what does it mean to me? Otherwise, it could just be thanks for a job well done. But if it means I'm on the road toward something or I'm going to fit into the organization in a different way, it becomes important."

To determine what high potential means at your organization, talent managers should sit down and discuss it in terms of the organization's business strategy, culture and leadership model, Morton said. Once the definition is crafted, it can be a guiding principle in what managers tell employees, thereby avoiding any implied promise."

You're not high potential forever," Morton said. "The potential has to materialize. You could be considered a high potential, the company works with you and tries to develop you, but you're not getting there. Then you fall out of the high-potential pool."

Part of being clear is to tell people, 'You're not in this forever, and you need to maintain standards and the quality of work to remain in our high-potential group.' You have to be up-front. This is why it's complicated and some companies don't want to tell because then you get into this challenge of managing expectation and managing the dilemma of someone [who] falls out of the group. It's not easy."

If it's not handled right, telling high potentials also can create a negative dynamic in the workforce, as some people are highlighted and others are not."

If you have good data to support how you make your decisions, you should be able to say, 'Jane, you didn't make the cut this year, but as you can see from this information, here are the things you need to do. And we will help you work on those. We expect that if you continue the way you have been and you work a little harder, you'll make it,'" Morton said. "You need to show people that you have made informed decisions, and you are supporting and helping them."

Telling Is Central at Central Maine Medical Family

The leaders at Central Maine Medical Family recently created the Accelerated Development Group, a pool of talent that will be readied to assume key leadership roles in the future. The organization and its top leaders made the strategic decision to tell these employees they are high potential to set an example for the rest of the organization as to what a leader should be."

We see them as the people with whom and for whom we'd like to provide future challenges that are growth-oriented and rewarding career opportunities," said Joyce McPhetres, vice president of HR and organizational development. "Our identification of the group is our opportunity to say, 'These are the people with the qualities and practices of leaders who will help us get to our future.'"

Central Maine began the Accelerated Development Group by developing key leadership competencies critical to organizational success. When selecting the first group of individuals, Central Maine looked at the competencies, performance assessments, patient satisfaction surveys, employee engagement surveys and the Caliper Profile to determine which of the organization's 125 managers fit the bill. In the end, nine were chosen."

I strongly believe they should be made aware of the role they're going to play," McPhetres said. "By notifying them and others of their role, you create a standard, and you set a standard for development of other people within the organization."It's important for both the group and [the] larger organization to understand that we will not be operating as usual. It's very important that we're holding up a new model [and] new ways of behavior. And it's important others understand that alignment with that model and those behaviors are critical."

The way Central Maine tells the Accelerated Development Group is significant because the CEO, COO and president of the organization are the ones to do it."

I work in an exemplary environment, somewhat of a dream environment, in that each of the leaders of our organization are critically involved in defining and structuring the future success of this organization. And they would have had it be no one else who would inform these people than themselves," McPhetres said."

We look to our leaders to understand the next step, to understand how we might be moving toward particular goals and toward our future, and it's very key for the top leaders to be intricately involved and actually communicate the programs and the developmental opportunities for the leaders within an organization."

Telling high potentials of their status can set an example for others that there are specific values an organization embraces."

The organization has to live and breathe these values," Sweeney said. "It's not like you can send out an e-mail and say 'OK, here are our three high potentials this year.' It has to be very thorough, very comprehensive, recognized at the highest levels within the organization, and it has to permeate the organization so the people who are identified are recognized in very real and meaningful ways."

[About the Author: Lindsay Edmonds Wickman is an associate editor for Talent Management magazine.]

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