The sails hang lifeless on the masts. The sea is still, and the ship is motionless. The sun beats down on the crew as they aimlessly drift in the doldrums, an area of flat seas and even flatter spirits, day after day after day.
Adrift in the doldrums is a common movie scene in 19th century sailing adventures. In the world of talent reviews, there is a similar dammed spot, dead center in the performance-potential nine-block. Consider the poor souls caught in this no-man land. Not enough potential to lift their career sails to propel them to new roles and adventure, not enough performance to enter the honored territory of master and high performer.
In my experience, if the total nine block tally holds more than 15 percent of leaders in the middle, or if any one individual remains in the center for more than two years, something is amiss. Well intended yet misguided managers may steer people in the neutral center as a safe harbor, believing they are doing their people and the organization a favor. Yet this is a risky tactic as too many people in the muddled middle block lack the kind of movement necessary for robust talent pipeline building.
Packing the middle lacks the crisp calls for differential talent investments and accelerated development. Overtime, a jammed up middle weakens the pipeline of “ready now” leaders. For the individual, there is loss of career challenge, development and momentum. For the organization, there is a loss of untapped potential or greater performance.
Getting an employee out of the talent doldrums starts with reaffirming the collective opinion that this is the right decision. Some talent managers put people there to avoid the give and take of talent calibration meetings, circumventing the unspoken judgment that the performance really isn’t that strong or the growth to bigger roles really isn’t there. In other cases, the talent is nearly abandoned because all the attention is directed to the perimeter of the nine-block, the extremes of performance and potential. To weigh anchor, I find it useful to set the right tone for middle talent by posing engaging questions such as:
- This person has been seen as a “middle” for a number of years. What would we want to see to be more confident in their potential for bigger roles or higher levels of contribution?
- If we were to compare this person to others with higher potential/performance, what would we observe missing?
- What risks are there in keeping this person in the current role over time given the middle assessment? Would someone else benefit more from being in this role? Would it be better to move the incumbent into another role to see if they would perform differently?
Even with a good discussion, talent may be moored to the middle due to the lack of management will to act. Follow up actions and momentum after a talent review meeting may not be as strong as the urgency to invest in a flight risk, high potential or leverage a proven master performer for a critical business need. Without affirming the commitment to act, providing adequate support and visible tracking, it’s likely that next year’s review meeting will find talent floating in the middle.
Once interest has been established to address talent stuck in the middle, many of the development tools we apply to accelerate potential apply. An assignment with stretch and challenge may ignite higher levels of performance and promise. In some cases, I find any resistance from the immediate manager to a reassignment occurs because they don’t want to lose the comfort of owning a steady performer.
Likewise, the proposed manager may resist given the bland judgment of the employee capabilities to growth. If there is too much discomfort in a stretch move, it may be time to revisit the call. By and large, overcoming the status quo is the mark of good talent management. The remedy may be a new role to test capabilities. In other cases, an investment should be considered to reignite growth. The standard toolkit of task force assignment, executive coaching, internal mentoring or external learning program can create a clear path forward.
Talent doesn’t want to be stranded in the doldrums and today’s organizations can’t afford to have ships lost at sea. Take action to break the deadlock in the middle.
© Kevin D. Wilde