Is Your Talent On The Roof?

Is Your Talent On The Roof?

     There is an old story of a vacationer calling his house-sitter to determine if everything at home was OK.


      “Everything is fine but I’m sorry to say your favorite cat Fluffy died,” the house-sitter reported in an unsympathetic, matter-of-fact tone.


      “Oh no, that’s terrible news … and you shouldn’t be so direct in telling me,” replied the distraught homeowner. “Break it to me slowly,” he continued, “first tell me Fluffy is up on the roof. Then next time I call, tell me the cat is off the roof but caught a bad cold. Then on the third call, tell me you took Fluffy to the vet and my pet couldn’t be saved.


      Now, tell me, how is grandma?”


      There was a pause, and then the house-sitter replied, “Oh, she’s fine … but grandma is on the roof right now!”



Telling The Truth About Potential


      So often our work in HR is confronting challenging situations and communicating tough messages. Unfortunately, we often confuse people by being too obtuse or avoiding difficult conversations all together. In the world of Talent Management, I find that we are most conflicted about whether to inform employees about their potential. 


      This ambiguity about ‘telling’ is unfortunate and has adverse consequences.  High potential employees are romanced away by other firms because they don’t know the bright future they have in their present employer.  Learning about it while trying to resign lacks credibility.  On the other hand, good performers obsessing about their potential ‘label’ can be distracting and destroy the sense of teamwork.  Some may have inflated expectations of rapid advancement without benefiting from the critical lessons of the current role.  When HR isn’t clear on the right position or inconsistent across the enterprise, it reinforces the perception that HR is softheaded and fragmented.



The Landing Spots


      So let’s get clear on this whole ‘telling’ thing.  First, recognize that you can only select one of three positions.  They are:

  • Closed Position – This is to ignore the question of potential and keep employees focused on today’s work.


  • Open Position – This is total transparency of regularly informing all employees of how the organization judges their future.


  • Half Open Position – There is a legitimate middle position, as long as it is thoughtfully considered and well executed.  There are two options within this middle position  – one, inform some people of their standing but not all.  This is to be strategically transparent to certain employee populations, such as fast-track development participants or critical capability pipeline people. The second option is to tell all employees some things about potential but not full disclosure.  For example, being general about advancement opportunities or move timing.


The Guidelines


      So what’s right choice for your organization?  Three questions point to the right position: 


Are you confident in the call – Can your managers make quality calibration judgments?  Are your 9-blocks more the work of fiction or real assessments of who is capable of greater roles?  Is the distinction between performance and potential clearly understood? Do your managers have a good handle on what the critical needs are of future roles?  Are your talent succession discussions – the collective calibration – rigorous and regular enough?

Is it useful for employees to know – Will employees benefit from knowing?  In an aggressive, performance-oriented culture, employees should know their prospects. Should their energy be spent getting ready to move up or move out?  Likewise, will the organization benefit from a talent pool in constant state of churn as a way of keeping fresh or  would the organization benefit from retained organizational knowledge and steady, team-oriented performers?  Does the ‘tell’ position align with your reward scheme?

Can the message be delivered well – To what degree can managers deftly inform employees about their potential?  I once worked with an executive so bad at communicating the right message to talent that our best often left his office thinking their career was coming to an end! We finally learned to automatically schedule a ‘recovery’ meeting with HR every time a high potential went to visit the executive.


Good Talent Sitting


      As the ‘talent-sitters’ for the organization, we shouldn’t be muddled about communicating potential.  Figure it out and get on with it.  Take the position of ‘telling’ if your managers can make good judgments, can inform employees well and transparency is useful to the employee and the organization.  If you can’t respond as confidently in these three aspects, take a conservative closed or part open position.  For some, taking a firm stand on communicating potential is a big step and for others, it’s a small move. 

© Kevin D. Wilde