Transparency and Talent: Do Your High Performing Employees Know Where They Stand?
Early on in my career, I facilitated the first of many all-day talent review sessions with a tough group of banking operations leaders who praised and critiqued potential and performance in colorful (but honest) ways. As the day wore on, and the conversation turned to the business HR team, I naturally recused myself — leaving it to my boss, the chief admin officer to run point.
I walked into the break room and noticed the conference room door where the review sessions had been taking place was left slightly ajar. I stood quietly out of sight and listened as the group critiqued one of my colleagues. Then my name came up … and I got more than I bargained for in that moment.
In truth, the feedback was balanced and supportive. They recommended some areas for growth and development. Then one leader shared a piece of stark feedback which hit me hard. My boss listened, said little, and took the feedback at face value. I remember swiftly leaving the area wondering what to do with this newfound perspective.
A week later, my boss invited me to lunch and shared that he was going to take me out of my current position to assume a new challenge and facilitate a cross-functional outsourcing team focused on a critical part of that business unit. While I had been gearing up for a tough conversation, it would appear that in my moment of self-pity by the conference room door, I had missed what happened next. My boss defended me. He offered feedback to some of the folks in the room, provided evidence, and felt that the opportunity to develop this person — me! — was an important talent move.
Thankfully, he was smart enough to know that there were experiences, perspectives, and skill sets that I could use to further my career. Upon reflection, this globally matrixed assignment was challenging complicated, impactful, and took me way out of my comfort zone.
It was the right decision for me at that time. Ultimately, my boss was honest and took ownership of his role to develop key leaders in a way that supported their personal and professional growth, while also delivering on the needs of the business.
The Power of Candor, Transparency, and Pushing People Forward
Thirty years later, I look back on the many talent decisions I have made as a chief people officer, or as a coach and advisor to a board or CEO as they assess the talent needs for key roles or situations. Most of these decisions work best with transparency: when the identified people know they are or are not under consideration. And with that, each decision conversation can be handled with candor, affirmation, and support, regardless of outcome.
I recently shared the entirety of my formative experience with a high performing CxO client. As we discussed their personal aspirations and interests to take on greater responsibility, this client was navigating a challenging workplace culture, led by a CEO who erred towards “nice” versus “honest”, and thus permeated a culture of avoidance in support of their “collaborative” work environment. This client felt boxed in knowing that they needed to grow but faced an unclear path forward without a real understanding of their performance and potential, even with “glowing” reviews.
Our ongoing conversations invited a relevant and timely question:
What’s the best way to go about informing current and future executive leaders about their potential, especially in our rapidly changing world where the need for greater transparency and growing retention concerns exists?
To gather some perspective, I reached out to my colleague and friend, Marc Effron, CEO of Talent Strategy Group, for some thoughts and advice. Here’s what he had to say:
S: Marc, given your experiences since publishing One Page Talent Management in 2010, how has the process of communicating potential, and the decisions that come from evidence-based observations, changed from your vantage point?
M: Steve, the need to be transparent with team members about their performance, behaviors and potential has only increased since we wrote OPTM. We were proponents at the time and my experience with hundreds of global clients since then has shown me both that executives want more transparency, but many companies are still not transparent about those critical areas.
Yet, we hear executives emphatically call for more transparency when we help clients with their talent philosophy process. In that process, executives are asked how they want to manage talent to achieve their strategy. When we ask about transparency, they almost unanimously say that talent process and outcomes should be largely or completely transparent.
Frankly, I don’t believe that companies will have much choice going forward. With strong calls to publicly publish salaries, diversity statistics and ESG data, how can companies not communicate to their own employee such important information?
S: Particularly over the past several years, where “talent” has been formulated remotely or in hybrid settings, what are the implications of this reality — and perhaps continued reality — on how talent and leadership will be assessed?
M: How to accurately assess when moving from in-office to hybrid is still a work in progress. On the performance side, it’s more important than ever to have a few, stretchy goals with exact metrics. Without that standard in place, it’s incredibly easy for bias to slip into the evaluation, no matter how well-intentioned the manager is. When evaluating potential, the two keys are to have an exceptionally clear (but simple!) definition of potential and to have an extremely well-facilitated talent review. In both cases, it’s essential that there is a clear reference standard to evaluate against.
S: What are some watch-outs, or “traps” that a leader can fall into when going through a talent review process? How best to stave those off, or work through them?
M: As you’ve seen in talent reviews, Steve, many things can go wrong but a few that are especially worth watching out for are:
· Perennial (but unrealized) potential: “Tom” is always in the high po box but he’s never selected when big roles come up. This may come from mistaking high performance for high potential or carrying-over a rating from year to year, when Tom’s ultimate potential may have been reached.
· My best vs. the best: Few leaders assess their team members against the best in the field. The top engineer at your company might be quite average at a higher performance company. Leaders should know what differentiates great in their field, not just in their company.
· Safe vs. stretch: It’s logical, risk-managing behavior to put your best person in a job where high performance is absolutely required. It’s also a great way to ensure no one ever gets developed at your company. Your best talent should always be in roles that challenge them to learn and grow, not just perform. If you think someone will be ready for a job in a year, put them into it in six months to accelerate their learning and test their true potential.
S: Assuming a leader is under consideration for a key CxO role, how and what messages would you deliver to the “winner” as well as the leader who is either not ready or has reached their ceiling in the eyes of the CEO?
M: Ideally, every candidate would have had ongoing conversations with the manager about their progress, so there should be no massive surprises for anyone. The heart of the message would be largely similar for winners and losers: we were looking for this set of capabilities, behaviors and applied cognitive horsepower in this role. As we’ve discussed, you compare to those criteria in this way. Overall, we feel that you are the best fit for the role.
For the person who didn’t get the role, the conversation would also hinge on whether they want to stay with the company. If they were good enough to be seriously considered by you for the role, they’re likely able to get that same role elsewhere. Either lock that person in by backing up the money truck, or let them know that you understand if they look elsewhere.
S: As boards and C-suites work hard to diversify, how do current processes of transparent communication around readiness and potential need to be adapted?
M: Transparency needs to be increased as I described before, but what really needs to be improved is accountability. Managers need to be held consequentially accountable for the disciplined movement of high potential diverse and female talent upward in the organization. The accountability starts at the pipeline into your company, since you can’t develop diverse and female talent if you don’t have any coming in. This means including in manager evaluations their progress in increasing diverse and female talent in their shop, up to the agreed-upon goal.
S: What recommendations would you make to a CHRO who may be facilitating these conversations or processes to identify the right person or people?
M: A few things will help that CHRO ensure a very effective review. First, if it’s C-suite succession being discussed, they should not facilitate the review since they need to show up as a member of the team. For other reviews, there are three key factors:
· Know the business cold: These are business decision that are being made about people. Do you know the business at a level of depth and intensity to truly evaluate that leader’s fit with the organization’s needs?
· Know the people cold: How well do you know the leader’s towering strengths, derailers, career interests, leadership capabilities, etc. because you’ve directly discussed those things with her and reviewed the company’s data about her?
· Know the standards cold: As I mentioned earlier, the standard for high potential should be exceptionally clear and the discussion focused on how well does person X compare to that standard? The CHRO must know that standard and enforce that standard in all discussions about potential.
Clarity. Transparency. Accountability. In the midst of so much executive leadership change, the need for all three practices is an essential part of any talent strategy and process.
While my early career formative boss was unhappy that I would ultimately leave financial services when I made the decision to do so eighteen months later, he remained a close friend and mentor. However, his candor and transparency at the right time, forced me to reflect, act, and adapt — all for the better.
Have you experienced either side of this performance and potential communication dynamic? How did it go?