Looking beyond job performance: the art of talent spotting

September 13, 2019

Sally was thrilled. After all these years, it was her turn. 

You see, for the last decade, Sally rocked her annual performance review. She knocked it out of the park on every performance metric related to her job. Now, after 20 loyal years working for the company and excelling in her role, her boss was retiring. She had the most seniority, so she just assumed she would be promoted to become the new boss.

Sorry, Sally.

She didn’t get the job. You see, Sally is not a people person. She is very good at what she does, but she’s always been an individual contributor and has not shown leadership potential. Nor has she exhibited an innovative mindset. Those are the qualities the company was seeking in the new boss, and they found them in an external candidate.

The problem is, no one told Sally about any of this. No one prepped her about what the company wanted, or that she wasn’t being considered for the role. She was shocked. So was her team. Morale plummeted and Sally left the company.

Welcome to the world of talent spotting gone wrong.

So what is talent spotting and why is it so important to get it right?

“Talent spotting is all about potential over performance,” explains Dick Wagner, PhD, an adjunct faculty member in human resource management at Capella University. “Too often, organizations and workers alike focus on the talent of employees in terms of current job performance. They don’t discuss the skills that are needed to succeed in the next role. What makes you good at one job doesn’t necessarily make you good at the next. The reality is that every organization needs to look forward when considering its talent needs, and employees need to be aware of that.”

So how can hiring managers and HR departments get talent spotting right? Wagner shares the following advice.

Start by looking forward

It all begins with a switch in an organizational mindset to be future-oriented. From executive leadership on down, it needs to be known throughout the organization where the business is heading and the skills and competencies needed to get there. Employees who exhibit those capabilities must be engaged with and supported as future leaders. For those who don’t, they should be offered opportunities to cultivate the skills required to meet the future vision.

Wagner recommends the 9 Box Grid as a useful tool in identifying the potential of employees. It requires thinking through not only their current strengths and weaknesses but more importantly where they have potential and aptitude for future responsibilities.

“It’s important to remember that talent spotting is not about simply identifying candidates who would be good for expanded roles and telling them the good news,” Wagner says. “It’s critical that you engage them throughout the process. Ask them, ‘What is it that you want to do? What do you enjoy? Where do you see your career going in the next five or 10 years?’ Their responses may surprise you, and it could change your calculation about who is the right fit for a role. Just because someone has the aptitude for an expanded role, that doesn’t mean they want it.”

Never set someone up for failure

People typically want to be nice … sometimes to a fault. That can be problematic in talent spotting. If leaders and hiring managers cave to pressures to reward a high-performing, beloved employee with a promotion even though they know that person is not right for the job, it often doesn’t end well.

Consider Sally again. What if her company had promoted her? Her days would be filled with leading team meetings, staff development, and reporting to senior leadership. These are all things she had neither the aptitude nor interest in doing. How would she have fared? Probably not well.

“Never set someone up for failure,” Wagner says. “It’s simply wrong to promote someone to a job they are not ready for, no matter how long-tenured and loyal they’ve been. Everyone loses in that scenario.”

No surprises

For talent spotting to be successful, it has to be done with transparency among those who have a vested interest. That includes employees who are being considered for future roles, but also those who are not.

“When a current top performer isn’t in line for a promotion, that should be well communicated in advance along with the reason why,” Wagner says. “It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. This is where proactive succession planning and career pathing comes into play. You should have these discussions in advance with everyone involved, whether they are being groomed for leadership or not. When someone gets promoted, or doesn’t get promoted, and it comes as a surprise, that breeds animosity and ill will.”

Telegraph the skills needed

When engaging with employees as part of the talent spotting process, it is critical to identify clearly the skills and competencies needed going forward. Doing so gives employees a chance to develop those skills well in advance of any promotion opportunities. Often those leadership skills include problem-solving abilities, team building, leading with empathy, and embracing accountability.

Wagner is particularly a fan of what he calls learning agility.

“Learning agility means having an aptitude to learn new things and a real eagerness to do so,” Wagner says. “That is extremely important for most organizations and should be a core consideration in talent spotting.”

Wagner is also an advocate for creating opportunities for employees to branch out from their current roles and explore duties outside of their comfort zones as a way to develop the skills an organization desires. That can be done through stretch assignments, job shadowing, mentorships, and more. Providing those opportunities helps to foster curiosity and broadens employees’ organizational perspective, which benefits everyone.

“Employers owe it to their employees to give them a chance to further develop their skills well in advance of a promotion opportunity,” Wagner says. “Whether or not they end up getting that promotion, it’s a healthy exercise for everyone involved.”

Learn to hone your talent spotting skills with an online degree in human resource management from Capella University.

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