To Tell or Not to Tell – Potential & Succession Outcomes from Talent Reviews

judgmentEvery succession planning and talent review cycle I’ve been involved in has included HR Business Partners and leaders looking for guidance on what to share with employees following the process. The answer to the question varies by organization. Those for openly sharing potential ratings usually cite higher engagement and retention as their rationale, while those opposed most often want to avoid creating expectations and time-tables that are difficult to control, or fear creating ego-tripping primadonnas. My guidance has been, and continues to be, it’s a matter of judgment – be completely transparent about the process and prudent about the outcomes.

In this post, I’m sharing some resources that should help talent managers and leaders making such judgments or uncertain of how to speak with their talent in the various circumstances you may encounter.

A little empathy Center for Creative Leadership‘s whitepaper High-potential Talent: A View from Inside the Leadership Pipeline provides insights from managers attending their development programs.

Major findings include:

  • Respondents said formal identification as a high potential is important to them.
    • 77% placed a high degree of importance on formal identification
    • Those who were formally identified as high potential leaders were less than half as likely to be seeking other employment as those informally identified as a high potential leader (14% vs. 33% respectively).
  • High potentials expect more development, support and involvement – and they get it.
    • They receive a disproportionate investment in their development – Senior Leaders’ time in coaching and mentoring, training and special assignments.
  • High potentials develop others.
    • While 84% responded the organization should invest greater amounts in high-potentials, the same number see themselves as responsible for and are actively identifying and developing other talent in their organizations.
  • High potentials expectations increase for a clear career path – to a level difficult to fulfill in some cases.
    • Commitment and engagement increase across all high potentials when they are given a picture of where they are going and their appropriate next steps in terms of development, experience and movement.
    • Changes to their career plan (e.g., delays in timing) cause frustration and impact trust.
  • They like the status but it has a downside.
    • Increased pressure, anxiety and frustration come with the perceived heightened expectations. This is greatly amplified when the organization’s intentions for their future are undefined.
    • Distrust and disengagement occur when the organization fails to deliver on expectations set with high potentials.


The decision to share information related to a individual being named as a successor or potential status should be handled sensitively and the consequences should be weighed thoughtfully.

Opportunity Risk
  • Positive recognition for and perceived benefit to top talent.
  • Communicated status will likely produce benefits of increased engagement, commitment, focus on developing others, and performance.
  • Individual may experience increased pressure and anxiety due to perceived increase in expectations.
  • Organizational needs may not align with Individual’s needs and goals.
  • Individual may view status and development plan as a contract; if contract is not “honored” by the organization, negative consequences outweigh the benefits realized.

Tools & Resources

For those with a policy to formally communicate high potential status with employees, this video from Marc Effron may be a helpful resource, as an easily shareable message from a well-known thought leader articulating this point of view.

My Guidance for Handling Discussions about Succession Planning and Talent Review Outcomes:

General Guidelines:

  • Avoid using color coding or other process labels (e.g., high potential, HiPot, HiPo, flight risk, misfit, salvageables).
  • Show transparency on the purpose, benefits and process but be very selective and prudent about sharing outcomes.
  • Consider the implications of sharing specifics with high potentials as detailed above. Informing someone they have been included as a successor or high potential employee in the plan creates a psychological contract and should be an exception with clear benefit to the organization.
  • Make the message personal. Avoid passing ownership of the process off to others. Share your view of their contribution and help them develop a plan to increase it.
  • Performance problems should be addressed with HR observing the performance improvement process independent of talent development and succession planning.

Potential Responses to Likely Situations

Situation: You wish to notify an individual that they are identified as a high potential leader because you feel it will benefit the organization (i.e., engage and ensure retention of the employee).

“The talent review process helps <company> act as good stewards with our talent and supports our objective to build a high-performance culture. Part of that process is to identify individuals seen as having the ability, commitment and motivation to rise to more senior positions and contribute more strategically in the organization. These are individuals we plan to provide special and necessary support and other investments in to ensure they have the best chance of making the contribution and challenging increases in responsibility we believe they are capable of making in the future; and of course, that they choose to continue making their mark here at <company>. Individuals identified as a high-potential will not be the only group invested in or supported. <company> is a special place where all of our employees are expected to contribute high-value and we as an organization will continue to invest in our people and lead in a supportive way.

As you would expect, this sensitive information is not being openly shared, but you are an individual that makes a special contribution to our company and we see you as someone capable of contributing more strategically and assuming greater responsibility in the future. I share this with you because I want you to know how much I and our Leadership Team think of you and value your contribution. I trust that you can handle this sensitive information confidentially. While it is observable that some contribute in a special way and are involved and developed uniquely, we do not want to segment our workforce or make others feel less valued. In fact, not everyone who has been identified will be told.”

“How do you feel about what I’m sharing?”

“Do you have and questions or concerns? I’ll do my best to answer them.”

Situation: Individual asks “Was I identified as a high-potential?”

After weighing the consequences outlined in the previous section, decide if sharing with the individual if they were formally identified. Whether you choose to tell them specifics or not, you should share with them how the organization defines a high potential in the process and the implications:


“As you would expect, this sensitive information is not being openly shared for a couple reasons:

  1. We know these plans are imperfect and will continue to develop. It would be unfair and unwise for the organization to set expectations that we are not certain we keep.
  2. While these plans help us guide development and recruitment, they do not replace our selection process. When a position becomes open candidates are evaluated for the position based upon the job requirements.

. Why do you ask? Is there anything concerning you?”

If the individual was not identified or you do not wish to tell them of their high potential identification, share information like the following and speak to their concerns:

“The Talent Review process helps <company> act as good stewards with our Talent and supports our objective to build a High-Performance Culture. Part of that process is to identify individuals seen as having the ability, commitment and motivation to rise to more senior positions and contribute more strategically in the organization. These are individuals we plan to provide the necessary support and other investments to ensure they have the best chance of making the contribution and challenging increases in responsibility we believe they are capable of making in the future. Individuals identified as a high-potential will not be the only group invested in or supported. <company> is a special place where all of our employees are expected to contribute high-value and we as an organization will continue to invest in our people and lead in a supportive way.”

“Do you have concerns about your future opportunities here?”

“Is there any support or development that you think would help you continue to perform highly here at <company> that we should discuss? I am very interested in helping you.”

If you do wish to tell them that they were identified, see the example above.

Situation: Individual asks “Was I identified as promotable?”


“Are you interested in understanding how the succession planning process works, what was said about you or do you have a position in mind that you would like to be promoted to in the future?”

If the individual responds that they would like to understand the process or what was said about them, share information like the following and to address their concerns:

“Part of the Talent Review process is to identify successors for critical positions in the organization to ensure we are able to effectively run the business and execute our strategy. We do not discuss all positions, but for those that we see as critical due to a variety of factors such as the difficulty to run the business while they are vacant or long lead-time to learn the position, we try to identify individuals throughout the organization that we see as capable of performing in that role and when, such as those we see as ready now verses those we believe need time to develop.

This enables us to do a few things:

  1. Explore if the individual we feel may be capable of assuming a critical role in the future has career goals that align with our needs.
  2. Identify and support the individuals identified with the development and experiences needed to perform in the role in the event that they are needed to.
  3. Identify gaps were we currently are unable to identify potential successors.

We do not assume that through this process we identify every individual that has the potential to assume a critical role; it is an ongoing process where we, based on what we know, work proactively to plan ahead.

Related to what was said about you – as you would expect – this sensitive information is not being openly shared for a couple reasons:

  1. We know these plans are imperfect and will continue to develop. It would be unfair and unwise for the organization to set expectations that we are not certain we keep.
  2. While these plans help us guide development and recruitment, they do not replace our selection process. When a position becomes open candidates are evaluated for the position based upon the job requirements.

I see it as part of my role to help you be successful and want to better understand your interests, goals and the help I may be able to provide to help you achieve them in a way that adds value to the company. Do you any specific concerns about the feedback I’m providing to you about your performance and career options here?”

If the employee responds that they have a position in mind that you would like to be promoted to in the future, share information like the following and to address their concerns:

“That’s good to hear. It’s always good to hear that you’re thinking about how to make a greater contribution to <company> in the future. I see it as part of my role to help you be successful and want to better understand your interests, goals and the help I may be able to provide to help you achieve them in a way that adds value to the company.”

 “While the specifics around the succession plan are sensitive and not being openly shared, I’m very interested in supporting you and I will always provide feedback on my perspective of your talents and opportunities to make even greater contribution to the company as we go through it.”

The Rest of The Story – Performance Management Jobs to Be Done

I don’t document a formal budget or balance a checkbook. I accept there’s risk and potential benefits I’m leaving on the table, but the return doesn’t merit the investment for me, personally. And, I have other habits that ensure things are within control and that the jobs of a budget and checkbook get done. 

Accenture is making news lately by abolishing performance reviews. No judgment there, but it’s only part of the story. I’m sure there is a countermeasure for how the organization ensures people are aligned at scale (e.g., how strategy is broken down to individual goals, actuals vs. planned are reviewed and responded to, feedback is provided and lessons learned about strengths to extend and things to change are identified, accountability and recognition/rewards are dealt to reinforce behavior). Is it responsible to make all this noise without ever discussing how the purpose and outcomes of performance management are being accomplished? I am, though, intrigued to learn what they’re changing to and how it accomplishes the jobs to be done. 

Many of you are thinking,
“…we have reviews and don’t accomplish any of these things”

…Or, “that’s not why we have reviews.”

If you’re cheering for reviews to be abolished it’s likely because you view them as illegitimate. You manage to cope and don’t see the point…for your team. However, as someone who has gone into a few companies that didn’t have performance management, I can tell you this wasn’t terribly functional or effective either. And, the people didn’t like it…because the jobs weren’t getting done. 

Where’s the rest of the story?

The Dojo is now closed

I received this text recently…”the dojo is now closed.” It was sad – a moment of silence type of experience where you recognize something that mattered is no more. I led a team of four Organization Development Specialists, three grew up in the organization in various operations roles before taking to facilitating learning and planned change; the fourth an exceptionally eccentric trades expert from the area, but new to the organization. In the weeks after I joined the company and the team’s formation, they were being moved out of our beautiful new corporate HQ to an empty room in a nearby engineering building. The day they moved in, I was there with them when I had the idea that what we needed was a meeting table in the room and a white board. We would have our team meetings right here; no tracking to a HQ conference room. They were no longer run out of corporate. We were given a sanctuary. Much fun and great work came out of what we affectionately called The Dojo.

I was very proud of this place. I spent time there pretty much everyday though my desk was in the HQ nearby. This was the best work environment I’ve ever worked in. Not because it hosted perfect people, Google like design, or progressive HR policies. We had an engaged team, each member learning and making the greatest contributions of their careers. Within six or seven months of this team being organized and me being brought in to lead it, in addition to our core accountabilities, there seemed to be no initiative happening in our organization that we weren’t needed to contribute to in some way. Additionally, we were meeting with and coaching every Manager, Director and VP in our customer group on a monthly or quarterly basis.

After two-years, I decided to leave the organization for completely personal reasons – to move my family home where my wife and I could raise our kids to know their grandparents, extended family, friends and church. Unfortunately, the magic of the dojo faded quickly. The team members have each moved on now, better from the time they spent together in this place and now using their talents to further other organizations. Who we hire, promote and recognize…who we entrust the duty of leading our talent…This experience was a very personal example for each of us on how the acts of the local leader can enable something remarkable to develop or tear it down. I’m thankful and better off for the years in the dojo.

Noel Tichy on Teachable Points of View

“Great leaders are great teachers not only because they know what they think, but because they take the time to organize their thoughts in ways so that they can communicate them clearly.” – Noel Tichy, The Leadership Engine

Teachable Points of View (TPOV) are by far the most frequently visited topic I’ve written about. In my own work helping develop leaders, learning to develop and communicate TPOV’s continues to be one of the most needed and, when used, effective skills of leaders. Here, Noel Tichy speaks on this concept that he has developed and instructed for decades.

Related Post: TPOV: Good News Fast, Bad News Faster

Talking Talent Reviews: repost of Interview with Cornerstone OnDemand

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Chris Stewart from Cornerstone On Demand about how I have helped a company implement talent reviews as the capstone of their annual talent management process. See more here:

Reblog: from August 25, 2014 CSOD Q&A on Talent Reviews

Hiring internally is a cost and time-effective way to recruit, yet many companies fail to move employees through the organization. We spoke with Brandon Curry, director of global talent management at Federal-Mogul Holdings Corporation, about the approach his company has begun utilizing to make career succession and development planning more integrated with business management, rather than a stand-alone HR task. As a result, the company has seen more internal hires and a greater focus on developing employees to follow their ideal career path. Here, Curry shares his insights on how the company changed its talent processes and several tips for companies looking to do the same.

How does your company approach talent reviews?

We’ve adopted leadership team-based reviews, so the decisions that are made become the leadership team’s decision. Our bottom up approach drives a level of ownership, accountability and visibility to an individual manager’s peers and their manager around how are they doing at managing their talent. 

Many organizations identify succession candidates solely based on managers’ ratings of employees’ performance and some competencies identified as HR’s criteria. In these cases, the leaders may have some confidence in the criteria because they trust the criteria concepts, but if it’s not a team decision, then they don’t necessarily all feel accountable for the decision. What we’re trying to do is bring the best of both perspectives together, where we have strong criteria and a strong process that engages the leadership teams. The goal is to ensure that when people are broadened to new roles and are onboarded into the organization, that they have support from their peers and their leader for continued development. The process also brings out quality developmental feedback on how individuals are impacting the organization and reveals areas where we lack the bench-strength desired to execute and grow in the future.

What was the process like before it became team-driven?

In the past it wasn’t nearly as inclusive. Previously, leaders from the top two levels of the organization prepared a succession report as an HR process, and each business or functional leader reviewed it with the CEO, HR leader and me. There wasn’t much visibility on who were the key talents across groups and we lacked the diverse perspectives and options for how to deploy talent. As a result of that, it reinforced silos, and we didn’t have many cross-moves for development purposes.

What results have you seen from the new succession planning process?

We now have a broader talent pool, and the talent in the organization sees more opportunity because they see more people moving across the organization. We’re able to identify better leads internally before we look outside. When a position becomes open in the organization, employees are able to search for opportunities in the system. We also receive requests from hiring managers and HR Managers to search internally such as, “We have this number of candidates identified as successors, who else do you have in mind?” We’re able to go into the system and do searches based on career preferences — who has identified that role as their next logical position and, based on succession plans, who is ready to move into that role.

We’re also seeing improved development planning because of increased visibility. If an employee has a development gap for a planned career change, it’s much more visible now because we have this series of discussions during which managers have to present this information to their peers and their manager.

Talent Management is clearly a priority for our leaders as they have a growing demand for resources to operate and grow their businesses. As the process becomes more socialized within the organization, it will become more of a cultural element and less of a tool. Succession planning and talent management is now considered a legitimate business conversation.

What advice do you have for companies that are having trouble making talent management part of the business discussion?

Start with the end in mind and think about basic objectives. At Federal-Mogul, we want critical positions to be filled internally and that drives a lot of our development action. Too often, in the past, we identified a need too late with not enough time to develop an internal candidate, requiring us to hire someone from the outside. This can cause resentment from employees who are not developed and given the opportunity and, ultimately, may leave the company. That’s a major objective of our process: that we’re good stewards of our talent.

Another piece of advice is to keep it simple. We have made leadership team-based reviews a recurring event on the calendar, so it’s integrated with our business process of budgeting, business planning and quarterly reviews.

Finally, make your leaders the owners. We enable line managers to take ownership, accountable for doing the work and presenting it, and human resources is supportive by providing them counsel, tools and resources. Previously, HR performed this function for or to the organization; now business leaders own it and HR facilitates this process.

Accurate vs. Useful

The two are not mutually exclusive, but often we get one or the other – accurate or useful. There is also the all-too-frequent moment of your life wasted on something neither accurate nor useful.


This is tough for me…I like accurate. A couple of things that are accurate, but not necessarily (widely) useful – The trap here is misapplication:
Spelling bee champions
Space pens – even though “they write upside down”
Most filed records

Things that are not accurate but are useful:
Most models of human (fill in the blank) – e.g., Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, EQ – emotional intelligence
Biographies and other historical accounts
Resumes and other marketing
Analogies and fables

Things neither accurate nor useful:
The feedback most people receive in reviews of their performance
Half of the consumer products my kids come home from school begging for

Consider your desired outcome. What’s important, accuracy, usefulness, both or neither?

Fundamentals: One-on-one meetings

partnershipLeadership is socially demanding. Interaction with those you lead (and hopefully serve) is necessary. I’ve found that it is very unlikely that we as leaders will consistently behave as we wish to – recognizing, coaching, supporting, developing, empowering and engaging…more – without creating some type of structural space/time and process to enable it. A practice that I use and recommend is creating a norm around meeting with each member of your team for one-on-one discussions to focus on their personal learning and performance.
Commit to meeting with each of your direct reports on a consistent frequency. For me, the minimum is 30 minutes bi-weekly. It’s their meeting, so I ask them to schedule the time in open space on my calendar at a time that works for them, booking 3 – 6 months into the future. I’m available for more if they want or need it. Our meetings do get moved as needed, but very rarely cancelled.
I require a written update around a loosely structured agenda built around roles I want to play as their leader:
  • to provide recognition – My Accomplishments (what have you accomplished since we met last?)
  • to serve their needs and support them – My Needs (what can I do that will be helpful to you?)
  • to build trusting relationships – FYI’s (no action needed updates), My Team (skip-level updates)
  • to engage and develop – My Development (what have you planned or accomplished to learn, experience and connect to develop yourself?)
  • to coach and empower performance – My Project Updates (what’s the status / how are you planning to progress?)
The purpose of the written update sent in advance is it allows us to make better use of our time together discussing and responding to the situation rather than using our limited time describing it.
Feedback I’ve received on the process:
  • I get a sense of satisfaction reporting my progress and it forces me to acknowledge ownership of my work.
  • Conversely, knowing the time is coming where I will report on my status and what has been accomplished (or not) also motivates me; I want to avoid having nothing to report but excuses.
  • I like having the consistency. It’s easier to get my needs met without feeling I need to “interrupt” as often.

I’ve provided the same update to my bosses over the years and the process makes me better. One thing that is certain is that if I, as the leader, didn’t set the expectation and require the process, entropy would set in; preparation and the good use of our time would end and I’d likely have what most others do with their time.

Committing to this structure and process makes me a better leader and my team members better performers. It also scales really nicely for those of us that manage global, remote or virtual teams.
If you decide to give it a try, let me know how it works for you.

Choose Service

When King Solomon died, his son Rehoboam became king of Israel. The people of his kingdom appealed for some relief from the heavy requirements  of them. The new king sought council of two groups, his wise elders and his peers. His elders told him if you will be a servant to these people and serve them and give them a favorable answer, they will respond in kind. His peers advised teach them a lesson and make your power known by telling them they have had it good and your requirements are much higher, like scorpions even.

I see plenty of evidence that leaders continue to seek similar council on how to lead.

While wise and wildly successful organizations like Southwest Airlines signal servant leadership and respected thought leaders like Jim Collins give us Level 5 Leadership, that’s not really how most of us have ever been led (especially when things aren’t going well) or what we see our peer group doing. Sure, it stands rational to align your service-value chain with how you operate and deliver value – leaders serving associates / organization members, who in turn serve external customers, who in turn chose your organization, fulfilling your organizations purpose and delivering value for stakeholders – but that’s not what my peers do. Do you know what they will think and say? And, being served has its perks. I have the power to…

Great leadership is delivered through individual choices to serve. Great organizations don’t exist without aligning leaders at all levels to make the choice to serve.

Choose service. Not to self-actualize and for virtuous altruism alone, but to deliver enduring value and effectiveness.

A Thinking Process for Solving Problems

I was asked to develop the problem solving capabilities of a group of staff. The group, like many of us, had members who were zealous about various steps, tools and forms they used somewhere else and now advocated for. The leaders were completely agnostic about the philosophy underlying the methodology. They liked how I helped them solve problems and wanted me to help their teams.

Most problem solving methodologies are limited to the task of cause analysis; a very important task, but not the only task. In the end, I prescribed the framework below – a thinking process – to guide the group through solving problems that honors the existing knowledge of the people involved and allows them to use any tool at their disposal.

**Two ways to apply these steps: (1) deductive – solving repetitious problems (2) inductive – designing the problem / risks out (opportunities in). It’s all cause and effect – either what did cause or what would cause an effect.

1. Awareness: How do we know there’s a problem to be solved? What is the importance / value of intervening?

  • Collect data and relevant information.

2. Team: Who should be involved in solving the problem? Involve Stakeholders (aim for representation from each group that touches or is impacted by problem) to:

  • Build problem solving skills
  • Improve understanding of process and interdependencies
  • Increase support and sustainment of outcomes
  • Transfers ownership to team for thinking and doing.
3. Contain – How can we manage loss while we identify the cause and correct it?
  • Band-aid over a bullet hole or finger in the dam. If we stop here, we’re firefighting and nothing ever gets fixed.
4. Define the Problem: What outcome or effect is problematic?

  • “We want an outcome that is…”
  • “We want an outcome that is not…”
  • Reach agreement of what the problem is. If you can’t agree on the problem, you won’t agree on the cause or solution.
  • Tip:
Say “so what” until everyone on the team cares.

5. Identify cause(s)

cause [kawz]: 1. the producer of an effect.

6, Action Plan: Identify, select and implement best solutions to the problem.

  • Identify countermeasures or corrective actions to prevent and/or control each potential cause.
  • Leverage Lessons Learned: search of all possible locations and resources for information that may be beneficial.
    • have experienced / addressed a similar problem.
    • have consistently avoided the problem.
  • Prioritize Actions
  • Assign accountability for execution.
  • Tip: When something is really important, bring in outsiders to critically analyze the plan.

7. Verify: Each solution on the action plan should have an expected outcome; how will you verify it?

  • Follow-up to determine if corrective action(s) have been effective in resolving problems.
  • Verify that training updates, use of updated standards and accountability audits are occurring.
8. Share: What needs to be communicated? With whom? Why?
  • Communicate results with stakeholders.
  • Scan for opportunities to prevent occurrence of the same or similar problems and leverage learning throughout the organization.