Successful organisations rely on emerging talent to sustain, develop and future-proof their business. Few would argue that a talent ID process that is inclusive and fit for purpose is anything less than essential.
Yet Gartner reports that only one quarter of HR leaders see their high-potential employee strategy as successful. Catherine Bardwell, TPC Associate Partner, and Peter Wall, TPC Associate, say it’s time to challenge old-fashioned mindsets and think outside the 9-box grid.
The need to be cautious with the 9-box grid
The 9-box grid is a popular talent management tool used to map employees into nine groups based on their performance and potential. It’s designed to help managers consider and articulate how well employees are performing in the present as well as predicting their growth potential.
While the 9-box grid has its advantages – some believe it makes talent investment decisions easier – it must be used with caution. Ultimately it is a process that is susceptible to bias.
It is human nature to root judgements about others in our own narrow sense of what good performance looks like. When we rate employees in the 9-box grid, it is too easy to put people in boxes based on our own personal preferences. The danger is that diverse talent is missed and we simply create clones of ourselves.
How do we nurture and develop talent?
Providing opportunity for new experiences is one of the most successful ways to identify and develop unique talent. Catherine describes how one organisation used a process of rotation, where “talent was rotated every couple of years” exposing employees to different scenarios and new challenges, allowing managers to see how individuals coped and evolved.
The rotation system flourished because the organisation’s culture focused on revealing strengths. It is this, Catherine explains, that is key. Research from Gallup shows that when employees know and use their strengths, they are six times more engaged – and strength-based development has helped companies realise up to 72% lower attrition and nearly 20% sales increase.
A strength-focussed culture, combined with the opportunity to shine in different situations, keeps leaders in a state of discovering what they’re good at. As those strengths are revealed, organisations can find ways to keep honing them. The leader’s long-term development path becomes a little clearer too.
A Harley Davidson enthusiast and expert, Catherine recalls a trip to a Harley Davidson dealer. As she and her husband approached, the dealer immediately addressed Catherine’s husband, completely bypassing Catherine and assuming that she would not be interested.
When Catherine challenged him on this, he explained it was because she is female and that in his experience, very few women choose Harleys because they are such big bikes. “Women are typically more risk-averse and don’t jump on a bike unless they’re 100% sure it’s the right size” he told her.
Catherine relates this to leadership scenarios and seeking talent: subconscious bias must not blind an organisation in their quest to recognise and nurture potential. For a talent ID process to be fit for purpose and inclusive, companies need to challenge prejudice and create a “blank canvas” that eliminates bias and encourages reasonable risk-taking.
Go looking for potential
Talent will not always leap out at you and jump on the biggest bike. “In my experience there are people who naturally push themselves forward – who want to get on – and are quite good at getting noticed” Peter explains. These are the obvious high potential employees and while they are valuable, it’s too easy to allow them to dominate the talent ID process.
Peter recalls working with a firm who talked about the need to enhance their ‘bench strength’ – the term they used to describe how many employees were suitable to replace senior leaders in the coming years. They had identified three or four noticeable candidates but were concerned they couldn’t see more talent emerging.
Peter helped them see that in marking a small, obvious cohort of employees as high potential, the firm had set in motion a self-fulfilling prophecy: those few who were profiled as high potential were given the challenging tasks, so it was those few who had the opportunity to visibly rise to the challenge and who were able to demonstrate high performance.
The better talent strategies don’t just focus on the obvious candidates, but “go looking for and mining for people with potential” says Peter. A talent ID process that is fit for purpose and inclusive is free of bias and provides opportunities for all employees to reveal their talent.