Ruining High Potentials, or When Talent Management Goes Wrong

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May 12, 2014

Once upon a time, there was a young man who was searching for a career.

Like many young people, his early jobs took him on a circuitous route, and ultimately landed him in the field of telecommunications. He lucked into an entry-level position in a Fortune 100 organization and learned the ropes.

Twenty years later, he is still at that organization, now managing other eager young people.

Three years ago, his boss told him, as part of his performance review, that he was a “high potential” and placed him into an organizational leadership development program to prepare him for the time that he would become a Director, and enter the executive ranks.

Building confidence

This recognition of his “potential” by an organization of this size did amazing things for his confidence.

He gained the courage and the wisdom to suggest ideas for making his unit more efficient, and for being more cost-effective. He was named to task forces that stretched his learning even more, taking him outside his own small area to focus on some of the larger challenges that the organization faced.

His boss, seeing the potential being realized, began to put him in front of executives, making presentation and selling internal solutions. His confidence continued to grow, and the work of his department continued to get attention for the effective management. His performance evaluations continued to place him as a “high potential.”

One day, his boss came into his office to tell him that she was leaving the organization, to take her career in a totally different direction. She had been a real mentor, and quite frankly, his first. He was shocked and saddened by her announcement, but she followed up with him by telling him that she wanted him to go for her position.

After all of the leadership development, all of the opportunity and all of the visibility, he was ready.

An opportunity, but not what he expected

He honestly believed that he could handle the job, and started thinking about how best to position himself with the hiring VP. He had a great relationship with the hiring VP and mulled over whether to face the VP head on to tell him of his interest in the position.

His team members all asked, “you’re going for the Director job, aren’t you?” The validation of his peers felt very special to him; even more important than the visibility with executive leadership. It told him that they found him a credible candidate for the job.

The VP named him the interim Director, to take over when the boss actually left.

On the Friday before his boss left, he had a meeting with the VP and her, and was prepared to share his plan for his leadership of the unit. Before he could begin, the VP told him that they were considering having the Director role outsourced to India, and probably would not fill the role.

It is a month later, he is still the interim director for the department, and has no further word on the fate of the Director job. Let’s see if I can describe how he feels – dejected, betrayed, angry is a pretty good start. The reality of the possible outsourcing not only kills the director job, but puts the entire department at risk for being outsourced, possibly including him.

Th program worked as planned, but …

I find this an interesting tale, and it is a true story. What is so fascinating to me is that, being a designer of Talent Management programs, I was impressed with how they treated this young man.

The communication of “high potential” worked as it was supposed to work – it built confidence and created a commitment to the organization. The leadership development program was well conceived, and offered both content and rich feedback. The stretch assignments were textbook, and provided that visibility and breadth that any high potential needs.

Of course, the story doesn’t have an end – yet. It is possible that the organization has this under control, and that they will redeploy this high potential talent if indeed the job is outsourced.

I hope so. But after a month, he’s becoming more skeptical. He is, of course, exploring options. He really doesn’t want to leave, but he’s struggling with the sense of betrayal more than not becoming a Director.

Keys to managing High Potentials

What does this mean to those designing and implementing talent management programs? I see a few important implications.

  • Make sure leaders who identify “high potentials” know what to promise, and that the organization stands behind the promise. If making the decision to communicate “high potential” status, leaders need to be consistent in that communication. If a promise is made, uphold it.
  • Implement the program at the highest level of the organization. Today’s leaders often have talent that transcends any one function or department, and moving folks across the organization has tremendous benefit. When looking at talent from the top level, it is possible to see where talent can be redeployed or shifted to provide even more breadth of learning and scope. Today’s software solutions can make this easy.
  • Integrate talent management into business decisions. The dollar savings for outsourcing can be compelling, and may be exactly the right business decision, but there are other business decisions – e.g., talent – that are equally important. Making an outsourcing decision in a vacuum may have unintended consequences elsewhere.
  • Be able to communicate an end-game. Don’t leave talent hanging with a “maybe.”

As with any “people program,” there are feelings and emotions at risk. This is an important consideration for anyone making business decisions. Feelings like betrayal are difficult to turn around.

This originally appeared on the ….@ the intersection of learning & performance blog.