In the third blog of our series exploring developing high potential talent, TPC Leadership UK’s Associate Partner Catherine Bardwell and Associate Peter Wall focus on uncovering talent throughout an organisation, not just those that sit inside the 9-box grid.

How do we uncover talent throughout the organisation and not just people in the 9-box grid? 

Successful leaders value, inspire and develop all their people. When we allow a proportion of the workforce to be sidelined, we risk demotivating those people and missing the opportunity to develop hidden talent that could enhance our business.

So how do we nurture and release the talent of everyone in an organisation, instead of only the so-called high potential leaders who stand out and obviously tick all the boxes?

TPC Leadership Associate, Peter Wall says a more collaborative, flexible approach is needed and that investment in talent should encompass all employees, regardless of whether they have high potential – it is the job of the leadership to spot and nurture talent in all their people. Peter asks, “Might it be better to focus on marginal gains and get everyone to be 3% better, than to get a select few to be 10% better?”

Think outside the 9-box grid

The 9-box grid is a commonly used talent management tool that helps leaders manage employees in an organisation. The framework allows leaders to map people across nine groups based on their performance and potential. It focuses on two trajectories: how well employees are performing now and how they might perform in the future.

But what about those people who don’t conform to the models of the 9-box grid or who slip through the gaps in the net? While the 9-box grid has its place, Peter and TPC Leadership Associate Partner Catherine Bardwell are in favour of a more collective approach, where leaders act as coaches and mentors who challenge and support high potentials, while allowing them to take responsibility for their own journey. 

The 9-box grid relies on the personal judgement of managers who decide which box an employee should be placed within. It’s human nature, especially when under pressure, to gravitate towards the familiar – to seek out and favour personalities who mirror our own. With such reliance on opinion there is a risk that decision makers simply produce clones of themselves. 

But leaders must put the needs of the business first and think beyond the 9-box grid recipe for developing high potential leaders: everyone has talent and allowing it to shine builds a diverse workforce who provide multiple gains across a business. 

Promote sideways as well as upwards growth

Catherine and Peter challenge the idea that growth potential should be restricted to climbing a hierarchy. Some talent, as well as some high potential leaders, will enrich gaps in a business by growing sideways rather than upwards.

Sideways growth presents employees with opportunities to gain different experiences, embrace new challenges and add depth and breadth to their knowledge. Being open to developing people sideways helps to create a culture of growth and empowerment and allows a business to uncover, nurture and make gains from all talent, not just those in the 9-box grid.

Talent is only ever on loan

If you are to cultivate genuine talent and inspire meaningful growth in all employees, people must be given the space to direct their own path. “It’s about giving people room to breathe.” says Peter. 

He takes a close relative’s career journey as an example. Appointed by a large, public sector organisation through their Finance Graduate Scheme, she was talent spotted early on and experienced several rapid promotions. But after a while, she decided she wanted to gain broader experience in a different sector and left the organisation. Her mentor, instead of coaxing her to stay, supported her decision to explore a different path and they kept in touch.

Years later, she was enticed back to another more senior role at that same public sector organisation. Having gone with her mentor’s blessing, she returned better equipped, with new experiences, broader skills and different insights.

“Her mentor embodies the idea that we’ve got our best people on loan” says Peter. “If talented people want to go, let them, but give them your blessing and embrace them in your network. They may well come back.

“But even if they don’t, they will speak well of your organisation to others and you’ll get a reputation for nurturing and allowing people to grow, which can make a big difference in a competitive employment market.”

Encourage personal responsibility

Talent can be uncovered in one organisation but allowed to grow in another. Catherine relates this to the 70-20-10 rule, which determines that people tend to learn 70% of their skills from challenging experiences, 20% from developmental relationships, and 10% from training. Peter’s relative’s mentor saw the value in expanded experience and valued her as part of his network — and it paid off for both in the longer term.

The best mentors encourage people to take responsibility for themselves but they also support and empower them on that journey. The talent identification and development process must move away from the directive approach where leaders and mentors manage people’s careers, towards self-led, experience-based learning and development. “It’s about asking them the right questions, not giving them what we think are the right answers” says Peter.


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