Developing Talent—A Quick How-To Guide
My last article talked about the importance of finding, developing, and deploying talent to a leader’s ability to “scale”—to take on larger roles and responsibilities. The article was a high-level overview, more focused on a leader’s talent philosophy than on the “what to do” of talent development.
Over lunch last week, a client asked if I had a template for developing people. While I think that each leader does well to develop his or her own template, I’ll offer some thoughts to get you started.
Developing talent starts with the assessment of the individual against the requirements of the role they currently have and against the requirements for possible future roles. While there are many ways to do this, here is one I recommend to my clients as a starting point:
- A1 = Employee exceeds the requirements of the current role and is ready for advancement now.
- A2 = Employee exceeds the requirements of the role but still needs some development to be ready for advancement.
- B1 = Employee meets the requirements of the role and has the potential to take on more responsibility; he or she can become an A employee with further development.
- B2 = Employee meets the requirements of the current role but will probably not advance further.
- C1 = Employee does not meet the requirements of the current role but can become a B employee with additional development.
- C2 = Employee does not meet the requirements of the current role and does not seem to have the willingness or capacity to meet those expectations.
This “A,” “B,” and “C” terminology may seem a little outdated—a hold-over from the day’s when Jack Welch’s “rank and yank” model was popular—and some people prefer using more-euphemistic terms such as “top talent.” The point is not the terminology, but that you have some mental model that works for you in assessing people. A model like this is something to guide your thinking, not to use to publicly label other people.
I generally encourage leaders to focus on C2 and A2 employees first (for reasons that will become clear), but let’s look at all six categories in turn starting with the last.
What to do with C2 Employees
I generally encourage my clients to focus on C2 employees first. Employees who are underperforming and not showing the willingness or capacity to meet the requirements of their role are a significant drain on the organization. They leave gaps that others need to step in and fill, they make other employees resentful, they take up far too much of the leader’s time and energy, and their continued presence undermines the leader’s credibility regarding their commitment to success and ability to address challenging situations. They must be dealt with fairly and objectively, but also without undue hesitation.
A leader needs to exercise due diligence and assess whether the C2 employee can become a B employee (or better) in a different role within the team or elsewhere in the company, or if there is simply not a role in the company that fits the capabilities or aspirations of the employee. In the former situation, the leader should work to quickly reassign the employee; in the latter situation the leader should work with Human Resources to start moving the individual out of the company.*
What to do with C1 Employees
Many large companies have thorough and detailed yearly review processes. These processes usually set goals for the employee and have some system of tracking the employee’s progress toward those goals. As long as they are taken seriously and not too onerous, such processes are very useful. I recommend something a little different, however, either in place of or in addition to such processes—a simple three-column employee development plan.
- Column 1—What is this person’s strengths and what can I do to help them utilize those strengths more?
- Column 2—What improvements need to be made to get this person from where they are today to performing at the level I expect?
- Column 3—What am I going to do to help this person make this progress? What is my timeline for doing so? How will I measure success?
This third column is the important distinction—it is making a commitment to help the employee improve, and actively engaging in that improvement, rather than simply placing the expectation on them to figure out how to grow. Yes, this requires more time and energy from the leader, but as we saw in the last article—talent development is one of the most important parts of a leader’s job and if you don’t spend time and energy on it you will eventually fail.
What to do with B2 Employees
There is nothing inherently wrong with being a B2 employee or having some of them on the team. Most people reach a point where they are content with their circumstances and do not wish to take on further challenges. Many people choose the satisfaction of an interesting-but-not-overly demanding job and the ability to have more time in their home life. Or, they may recognize their natural limitations and not want to over-reach and fail. Most teams have roles that are well-suited for such people—people who are steady, dependable, and competent. As long as they are not holding the team back and they stay current on the skills necessary for the role—that is, as long as they don’t become C employees—I encourage leaders to leave well-enough alone. Monitor these individuals and ensure that they keep current, make sure that they stay motivated, but don’t invest extra time and energy on their development.
What to do with B1 Employees
B1 employees provide an opportunity to improve the team. The goal of a leader when it comes to developing talent is to keep anyone who can grow on a path of growth. Continuous improvement is the lifeblood of an organization and only occurs if the individuals who make up the organization keep improving (with the B2 exceptions noted previously). If a leader has B1 employees—people who meet expectations and have potential to take on more with some development—I suggest that they implement the three-column development plan mentioned above, but not until they have addressed their A2 employees.
What to do with A2 Employees
The leader should spend most of their time and energy on A2 employees—those who exceed expectations but are not quite ready for advancement yet.
While it is nice to think that we are all equal in potential, we are not. Some people have a unique combination of drive, natural talent, and acquired skills that make them better-suited for certain activities than other people. I can shoot a basketball, but I am not Stephan Curry and no amount of work will make me Stephan Curry.** A1 and A2 employees have a disproportionate influence on the team’s performance and any investment of time and energy in their development is rewarded exponentially. After addressing C2 employee situations, the smart thing for leaders to do is focus on the development of A2 employees.
If you have A2 employees, use the three-column plan, but do so with more detail. Be clear with the employee that you are investing in their development and see opportunity for advancement or expanded responsibility for them with the proper growth (but never make promises to the employee you may not be able to keep!). Be very specific about the skills gap between where they are now and where they could be. Be sure to give positive feedback whenever possible (we all like encouragement from the boss; high-achievers need it like oxygen), and never miss an opportunity to give constructive feedback. Always frame the constructive feedback as a way of preparing for something bigger and better in the future to ensure the employee maintains their confidence.
What to do with A1 Employees
There is a scene in the movie “Full Metal Jacket” where, after a torturous 8 weeks of basic training, the Marine drill instructors are starting to lose control of the recruits. The recruits are ready for more, and they are chomping at the bit to go to war. A1 employees—those who exceed expectations and are ready for advancement—are like those Marine recruits. They need to be challenged and stretched or else they will rebel or move to another company.
It is vital that a leader not become complacent with such employees and assume that they will continue happily in their current role. You must keep them busy and look for opportunities for them within the company. You must also make sure that you have identified and groomed their successor, because A1 employees leave a company in which they do not see further opportunity to grow and you don’t want to be caught with a big hole in your team.
Special cases—B1 Employees in A Roles
One of the more challenging situations leaders face is when they have a B1 employee in a role for which they need an A employee. Yes, the B employee is meeting the current expectations, but due to market dynamics, company reorganization, or other factors the demands of the role are changing and more is needed for the team to be successful. It is also possible that a leader can have an A2 employee in a role but due to changing demands of the role the employee becomes a B1 employee.
In either situation, it is important for the leader to act. Be very candid with the employee about the situation. Explain that it is related to changing circumstances rather than the fault of the individual per se. But also be clear that it requires the employee to strive to improve. In such situations, it is incumbent upon the leader to actively engage in the development of the employee, but also be realistic about whether the individual can meet the demands of the new situation.
It is important for the leader in this situation to:
- Clearly describe the situation and changing expectations, while acknowledging the past accomplishments of the individual.
- Clearly identify the areas that require improvement and set specific metrics and deadlines for progress. A leader cannot spend too much time clearly articulating their expectations—what needs to change, why it needs to change, and by when it needs to change should be spelled out in writing.
- Help the person when you are able do so personally, but don’t hesitate to get them specific skill training or executive coaching. A leader owes such investment to someone who has contributed to the company and is working in good faith to improve performance so they can continue to contribute.
- Do not unnecessarily delay decisions to make personnel changes while still ensuring that you treat people fairly. It is morally, ethically, and legally appropriate, but it also influences the way your other employees view you. If they see you treating someone unfairly, they will expect the same treatment. And nothing saps motivation more quickly than an employee’s concern that they will not be treated fairly. If a B1 employee is not making it in an A role, move them gently but move them nonetheless.
Most of what is written here applies to developing a leader’s direct reports. Most senior leaders also have layers of indirect reports—people who report to people who report to them—and the leader should take responsibility for ensuring leadership development at all levels of the organization. Not only should they take the actions described here, they should insist that their subordinates take these actions with their subordinates. Leaders should take every opportunity to observe and assess employees multiple levels below them. They should not only hold their subordinates accountable for employee development, they should challenge their direct team members on their assessments and plans for development.
Leaders should always remember that they are ultimately responsible for talent from the bottom of their organization to the top. If your direct reports are not developing theirdirect reports, it is your fault.
The advice shared here is only a starting point—talent development is a broad topic and leaders should immerse themselves in it. Treat it as a skill you should study until the end of your career. Below are a few good books to get you started.
Books on Talent Development:
- Topgrading by Bradfort D. Smart
- For Your Improvement: A Development and Coaching Guide by Michael M. Lombardo and Robert W. Eichinger
- Leaders at All Levels by Ram Charan
- Superbosses: How Exceptional Leaders Master the Flow of Talent by Sydney Finkelstein
- The Leadership Pipeline by Ram Charan, Stephen Drotter, and James Noel
Giving advice is easy, overcoming resistance to change is not. In my next article I will address how to help your subordinates overcome internal resistance to change that they may not even be aware of.
*It is relatively easy to move people out of the company (a euphemism for “fire the person”) in the US, but this is not the case in many countries. In countries with more challenging labor laws the leader must get more creative, but that is beyond the scope of this article.
**For my non-US friends, Curry is one of the most gifted basketball players in the game.