Diamonds in the rough: Identifying and growing your rising stars

Is the concept of talent overrated? Here Lumesse HR director Steve Hewitt outlines a radical new approach to identifying the stars of the future.

In Geoff Colvin’s highly publicised book, ‘Talent is Overrated’, he challenged the idea of there being certain ‘bright stars’ that can be easily identified and nurtured for success, and opened the debate around whether potential actually exists in the vast majority of people.

Perhaps in the past HR has got it wrong, selecting only those very high performers exhibiting the obvious signs of potential, and losing out on other potential within the business as a result. It’s really about identifying different types of potential, and then implementing the right training and support in order to develop it.

As Geoff states, “In field after field, when it comes to centrally important skills – parole officers predicting recidivism, college admissions officials judging applicants – people with lots of experience were no better at their jobs than those with less experience… Deliberate practice is hard. It hurts. But it works. More of it equals better performance and tons of it equals great performance.”

In the highly charged, competitive corporate landscape, talent is an increasingly critical differentiator of business performance, and our views of what constitutes true talent and potential is changing. As our understanding develops around how the human brain works and human behavioral patterns, HR is better equipped than ever to spot potential and grow talent within an organisation.

However, a recent study sampling 6.6 million people and more than 100 Fortune 500 HR leaders from leading member-based advisory company, CEB, highlights why two-thirds of organisations are investing in the wrong employees and some of the key challenges HR needs to overcome. Key findings in the report include:

  • HR leaders are having trouble identifying who and what constitutes a rising star; 55 percent of employees identified as HiPo will turn over in a five-year period, resulting in wasted spend and insufficient leadership bench strength. In fact, only 1 in 2 HR professionals lack confidence in their HiPo programmes.
  • Just 15 percent of high performers are actually high-potential (HiPo). Too often resources, training and career opportunities are directed at employees who lack the aspiration, engagement or ability to be effective at the next level.

Using CEB’s four-pronged approach to improving the caliber of leaders and create incentives for HiPos to stay, Neal Bruce, SVP of Product Strategy at Lumesse, offers more in depth advice for identifying, nurturing and maintaining top talent within your organisation.

1. Redefine “potential”: Adopt a clearer definition that accounts for the three key attributes – aspiration, ability and engagement – employees need to have in order to rise to more senior roles.

By defining which three attributes really count, HR leaders will be able to set actionable performance goals for rising stars that outline how the attributes align with their existing and future roles. This is important as companies are leaner than ever, placing greater demands on staff. By structuring performance so that the employee knows what really matters, they will also be encouraged to find ways to bring these attributes to the fore, going beyond their usual and busy schedules to prioritise high-value and high-impact workloads. 

2. Measure potential objectively: Rather than relying solely on subjective manager nominations or evaluation, organisations should adopt a systematic process for identifying high-potential talent through objective talent assessment and evaluation.

Systematic evaluation of employee skills is important as it takes the emotional and personal subjective view out of a high potential talent identification process. This assessment and evaluation can take the shape of formal skill tests or interviews for new roles with selected people within the business. This steers away from solely relying on a single and subjective manager nomination, which can tend towards bias. For example, some managers who feel their position is threatened by a rising star may focus too keenly on small flaws or minor detail without emphasising traits that rise the star above their peers and recognises their future potential.

That said, manager nominations and evaluation are still important as HR needs to evaluate whether rising stars can work with others. Personal feedback should be gathered as part of a 360 degree review – one that collates feedback from all multiple layers in the company from those managed by the employee, those who manage them and even peers. This will give insight into key attributes that cannot be measured through a formal process.

3. Ask employees for commitment in return for career opportunities: Proactively evaluate engagement and act to mitigate flight risk among high-potential employees by evaluating their engagement today and their longer-term commitment to the business in the future.

Line managers are an important structure in helping turn the negotiation of commitment into action and opportunity. Each manager should be encouraged to have an open and honest discussion about commitment with the staff that they review. This can be difficult as the topic is a fairly new concept and a sensitive subject in many businesses – many feel that employee commitment is a basic expectation. In return, employees have felt that honestly engaging in a conversation around commitment may undermine their work efforts and put them on the back foot by suggesting that they won’t always be loyal to their current place of work.

However, with innovative new start-ups and fierce competition for the best talent, businesses cannot afford to assume or rest on their laurels with regards to commitment. An honest discussion needs to be had and it should be made clear to the employee that they will not be penalised for negotiating the terms of their commitment.

In doing so, businesses and line managers are encouraged to identify new projects to help develop growth potential into talent and move high potentials up the ladder when appropriate.

4. Create differentiated development experiences. Typical high-potential programmes provide opportunities for incremental skill building but fail to prepare employees for realism of future roles. The best organisations help high-potentials learn new skills, but also apply existing skills in different roles by exposing them to high-impact development experiences.

It is important to ensure that rising stars have mentors within the business to help them understand the requirements of the role above and how their function may change as they move up. These mentors could be line managers but ultimately should be chosen by the employee as they will be more incentivised to learn from a person of their choosing.

Often high development experiences come in the form of enabling the employee some autonomy over activity as this helps them to exert some form of management or influence over others. This may range from developing the knowledge of commanding a meeting to leading either some aspect or all of a project. By giving them the opportunity to ‘own’ activity and be responsible for direct results, then they are more likely to more quickly develop the skills needed for the next level.

The competition for top talent is intensifying, and business leaders need to invest in ensuring the talent they have at their fingertips is being nurtured and maintained in a way that will most benefit both the business and the employee in question. They can do this by redefining the concept of potential, and how to most efficiently measure it, deploying systematic skills evaluation and tailoring impactful training and development initiatives. This will also ensure that organisations do not fall into the trap that Mr. Colvin outlined in his argument that talent is not something only possessed by an elite group of ‘bright stars’.

Steve Hewitt is HR director at Lumesse

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda was Editor for from 2016 to 2018.

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