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John Milsom

John Milsom



Cheshire Office
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Collateral damage in the war for talent

One of the biggest questions that organisations need to answer when designing High Potential programmes (HP) is how they will manage participants' expectations. Managing the reaction of leaders identified as having potential for further progression is a well documented challenge. The key with these leaders is to avoid over inflating egos and keeping their feet on the ground.

However, the impact on those not selected for programmes tends to receive less attention. Many of the companies we work with at Wickland Westcott find that the pass rate at HP assessment/development centres is around 50% (or below). When looking to identify executive potential the hit rate is even lower. This can leave a lot of key leaders disillusioned, wondering whether they have a future within their current organisation and feeling less engaged. Ultimately these people are more likely to look around for a new opportunity and are certainly rich pickings for other organisations prepared to take a fresh perspective.

Some of the worst affected are those initially selected by line managers as having potential who are then de-selected following an objective assessment and feedback process. These unseen casualties in the war for talent are often high performers and strong contributors – this is why their boss has put them forward as an HP. Typically, they include leaders that have been delivering for some time.

The root cause of these low ratios and therefore the crux of the problem is that it is very difficult for line managers to precisely measure potential, particularly when they only have current performance data available to them as a basis for their judgements. This issue is exacerbated when managers are being asked to make judgements about an individual’s potential to progress beyond their own level.  Decisions and judgements are also complicated by the politics and relationships between managers and direct reports. For example, it is often easier for a line manager to recommend a high performing team member as having high potential as a reward for effort or performance, rather than based on their true potential to progress. I doubt there are many who have not experienced this phenomenon.

Different organisations look to solve these problems in varying ways. Having worked with a range of leading organisations of all sizes, we recommend considering several different approaches. The key in our experience is to balance the assessment and selection process with the careful management of candidate expectations. The way that those nominated as HPs are treated before, during and after the assessment centre will have as much impact as the pre-screening process itself. Questions we frequently pose to organisations include:

  • What are HP candidates being promised when they are nominated as HP and invited to the assessment centre?
  • What are HP candidates being told about the purpose of the assessment centre?
  • How are HP candidates prepared for the assessment centre?
  • What support do candidates receive after the assessment centre?

All of the above questions are important, but the last one in particular is often forgotten in connection with those people who have not done so well at assessment/development centres. Candidates can feel as if they have 'failed' and are seen as unlikely to progress, which leads to lower engagement and increased turnover.

In response, the six areas we work with clients to pre-empt any problems include:

  1. Training and briefing line managers. This includes training managers in (a) spotting talent and (b) carefully communicating what being nominated as an HP means (i.e. not over promising!).
  2. Carefully positioning the assessment/development centre as a process for determining the ideal development path for those showing potential. Rather than a pass/fail outcome, the focus should be on choosing those people who will benefit most from participating in the programme, and identifying the best alternative development options for the candidates that are not ideally suited to the programme.
  3. Making the assessment process a 'two way conversation', encouraging participants to self reflect on their own ambitions, strengths and development areas. Ideally the conversations that happen in preparation and after the assessment centre will allow participants to reach their own conclusions before they have received any feedback,
  4. Ensuring that the assessment process feels fair, and has a high level of face validity.
  5. Ensuring that the feedback to participants is constructive but honest. 'Tough love' delivered in an adult-adult way is often critical in keeping leaders engaged. When negative feedback is not given clearly as a result of an organisations desire to avoid difficult conversations, this leaves candidates confused and disengaged.
  6. Providing positive coaching and support to all participants. Whether selected to go onto the HP programme or not, candidates need to feel as if they will have a chance to progress, and that the business will support them in preparing for future challenges in line with their aspirations. Providing clear guidance and support after assessment centres can be very powerful, and development does not have to be inclusion on an HP programme (think 70/20/10 here).

Addressing these six area ensures that organisations can minimise collateral damage. When looking at reducing turnover amongst those not selected for HP programmes our recommendation is always to focus on engaging candidates in a constructive dialogue that includes self reflection, rather than purely adjusting the selection criteria.

As an example, we recently introduced an engaging process with international HP leaders with a leading multinational as the first step in HP induction. Each participant completed a personality questionnaire and submitted a CV before participating in a 'Personal Review' conversation with a trained executive assessor/coach. The session explored candidates’ careers to date, their aspirations and their current work style, before leading into a discussion of development gaps and priority areas for development. After the session, a personal summary report was prepared to help the individuals reflect on how they wanted to focus their immediate and long-term career development. Some candidates decided not to attend the HP programme, while others accepted that the programme was not right for them after further discussion with Talent and HR. This meant that there was a lower failure rate once the programme started, and that the engagement of those candidates not selected for the subsequent stages of the HP programme was even enhanced as a result of the personal support provided.

In summary, it is easy to under-estimate the costs associated with getting the positioning and candidate experience wrong within High Potential programmes. At worst, this can lead to critical high performers being switched off and deciding to leave. It is not difficult to mitigate this risk however. Once the problem is understood then it is relatively simple to reduce collateral damage.

For more information on the design and introduction of leading edge programmes and the effective assessment of leadership potential contact John Milsom on 01625 508100.

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