High potentials necessary to thrive

Talent assessment helps reveal hidden gems
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 08/05/2010

Learning agility: Jim Peters, global leader of succession planning at Korn/Ferry, and Annette Reid, senior vice-president for the HR centre of expertise at insurance company Aviva, spoke in June at a Strategic Capability Network event about “learning agility” — a research-based measure of potential. For more information, visit www.scnetwork.ca.

High potentials necessary to thrive

Can you stay focused for 10 years? (Leadership in action)

Learning agility versus organizational agility (Organizational effectiveness)

Talent management comes of age (Strategic capability)


High potentials necessary to thrive

By Amanda Silliker

High-potential employees are crucial to organizations but many employers have misplaced them or don’t know they have them at all, according to Jim Peters, global leader of succession planning at executive recruitment firm Korn/Ferry in Minneapolis.

“A growing issue in most organizations is that succession is not working,” he said. “Companies have not been assessing their people correctly and they are not able to identify those who can work in a multi-functional capacity.”

A high-potential individual is the juxtaposition of superior performance and high learning agility, Peters told a group of HR professionals at a Strategic Capability Network (SCNetwork) event in Toronto in June.

4 qualities needed

Four factors make up learning agility and an individual must be high in all these areas to be considered a high potential.

People agility: The first is people agility, which means individuals who possess this are incredibly self-aware. They respond to feedback, they know what they’re good at and they work hard to improve their weaknesses.

Change agility: This is found in people who are excited about change, good at managing it and take the heat of resistance.

“Like in science class, if you took a prism and shined light through it, an array of colours would come up on the wall. If you move the prism, a different colour is shown,” said Peters. “That’s what high-potential people do, they move the prism. They get us to do things differently.”

Mental agility: Mental agility means good problem-solving skills. People high in this area are comfortable with complexity, they’re curious and they find a solution to tough problems.

Results agility: Lastly, agile learners have results agility, which means they are very resourceful and get things done for the organization, said Peters.

Companies need high-potential people because they need multi-functional leadership at the top, he said. These employees should fill the managerial roles all the way up to the CEO.

“They also need high potentials in succession planning,” he said. “They need a flow of talent coming into the organization that could succeed that particular group of people.”

To identify high potentials within an organization, accurate talent assessment measures must be in place.

Aviva’s ‘talking talent’ initiative

Annette Reid, senior vice-president for the HR center of expertise at insurance company Aviva in Chicago, helped implement the company’s “talking talent” initiative to assess employees. The employees are involved in the entire process and they discuss their aspirations, progress and learning agility with their managers.

The program focuses on consistency, so managers all over the world use the same language when talking about talent and potential, said Reid, who was also at the SCNetwork event.

There’s also the issue of transparency.

“We’re completely transparent and give the employees absolute feedback in terms of how they’re viewed in the organization,” said Reid. “We tell them exactly what we think of them.”

Since implementing this approach, Aviva has a much better handle on employees and is able to better allocate their talent, she said. Managers are having very honest and positive conversations with employees and coming out with the right actions for each individual, she said.

Finding high-potential employees can also be done at the hiring level. Behavioural interviewing techniques that ask questions surrounding people, change, mental and result agilities can help identify an agile learner coming in, said Peters.

Once an employee is accurately assessed, a development plan should be tailored to her specific needs, said Peters. There shouldn’t be a one-size-fits-all approach since every employee is different.

“We realize what’s right for one person might be wrong for another,” said Reid. “We differentiate our talent and understand the unique strengths that people bring to Aviva and we tailor our development plans to each employee.”

70-20-10 methodology

For developing high-potential employees, the “70-20-10 methodology” should be used, said Peters. Seventy per cent of the development is experiential, which can include full job changes or new assignments within a current role. Twenty per cent should be in terms of feedback, either formal or informal, and include a good coach or mentor. Ten per cent is for enrichment courses and workshops.

Employers should think about the business case for talent assessment and finding high-potential employees, and look at their strategic plan for the next three or five years, said Reid. She encourages companies to identify goals and determine what talent is there now and what is needed.

“There are different levers that can be pulled depending on what the gap is,” she said. “It could be attracting new talent, better identifying talent or building from within.”

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SCNetwork’s panel of thought leaders brings decades of experience from the senior ranks of Canada’s business community. Their commentary puts HR management issues into context and looks at the practical implications of proposals and policies.

Can you stay focused for 10 years? (Leadership in action)

By Dave Crisp

There are no more talent shortages delaying projects at insurance company Aviva, thanks to an HR department that keeps its learning agility program going for the long haul. Someone suggested the title “learning agility” might be too HR-jargon-oriented. Would “accelerating innovation” have been better? It didn’t deter one of the biggest audiences ever at the Strategic Capability Network for a single event.

This reception reflects a shift happening within companies and the ability of HR to push important buttons and achieve excellent results.

More and more organizations live or die by innovating continuously. A highly educated workforce, geared by TV and Internet to think for themselves, is harder to manage but delivers powerful, continuous innovation if it can be kept engaged. Command and control won’t do it.

It takes 10 years to develop an individual’s talent, according to Malcolm Gladwell, author of Outliers. Annette Reid, senior vice-president for the HR center of expertise at Aviva, said they’re five years into a program of nurturing those with high learning agility and feel they have another five to go before the concept is fully entrenched and as widely used as possible. The parallel is obvious.

Lots of practical questions arise: Why stick to this particular program? Because it builds the innovation organizations crave, which gives it meaningful hooks on line time. What does it take to make it stick? Constant simplification, encouragement, training and practice for managers to assess their reports, share the information easily and, most of all, hold critical, challenging conversations about what reports need to develop to get ahead.

Does Aviva use the 81 factors in 27 scales that the Korn/Ferry learning agility assessment tool offers? Not on your life, it’s too complicated.

But it does follow the theoretical underpinnings and use some of the associated guides in modified form — to make them even easier to use and to avoid managers rating staff from one to nine. Instead, they give names to the nine boxes in the three-by-three learning agility matrix. What might be seen as the lowest rated group, for instance, is referred to as “mismatched talent” and efforts get underway to match them to jobs where they will excel.

These are the same messages we’ve been hearing consistently in recent presentations. It’s crucial but hard to have managers recognize good performance positively, frequently and consistently over the long term. Performance conversations have to be continuous throughout the year, not just at appraisal time. More and more the trend is away from ratings toward development discussions and creative solutions that are win-win for everyone.

We know what to do. It helps to hear it reinforced and see practical applications taking root with line managers in a specific company and culture. Will it work in your organization? Some variation, adapted to your situation, must eventually be found or companies will run over those that don’t.

Dave Crisp is SCNetwork’s lead commentator on leadership in action. He shows clients how to improve results with better HR management and leadership. He has a wealth of experience, including 14 years leading HR at Hudson Bay Co., where he took the 70,000-employee retailer to “best company to work for” status. For more information, visit www.CrispStrategies.com.

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Learning agility versus organizational agility (Organizational effectiveness)

By Tom Tavares

When it comes to human intelligence, you need a program to keep track of the players: IQ, emotional intelligence, social intelligence, lateral thinking, design thinking and now learning agility.

These concepts have one thing in common — they are hard to pin down. For example, learning agility is defined both as the ability to deal with first-time situations and the willingness to learn from experience. But if an event is truly unique, how does past experience help?

Learning agility comprises four subgroups: mental, people, change and results. Most of these are related to personal attributes such as presence, tough problem-solving, self-awareness and tinkering. Individuals with these qualities are seen as having high potential in management and, in most companies, have the lion’s share of attention in developing talent.

However, only 10 per cent of workers are in management. Although it’s true the actions of a handful of executives can derail a firm — see AIG, Toyota and BP — it doesn’t follow that a relatively few high potentials can sustain overall business performance. In fact, the opposite is more likely the case. Total quality management reduces costs and improves quality by leveraging the efforts of everyone down to the front line.

Unfortunately, only about one-half of employees are engaged in their work. Stated differently, leaders work in relative isolation from their staff. As change accelerates and issues grow more complex, the 10 per cent of people in management end up trying to solve 100 per cent of the problems, which is impossible.

The solution is at hand: Access untapped intelligence through disciplined interaction with the other 90 per cent of employees. However, most executives and managers are too busy to listen. Cut off from the additional problem-solving power needed to keep pace with change, leaders end up trapped in the weeds fighting fires.

Ironically, talent development systems in companies inadvertently reinforce this impossible ratio. To keep pace with technological change, companies recruit new graduates with state-of-the-art knowledge. These specialists are the talent pool for management succession. When faced with the pressures of change as leaders, they fall into the trap of solving problems themselves.

The complexity of the business world is far beyond the reach of management, regardless of how much learning agility they may have. To keep pace, there is no option but to build disciplined problem-solving with employees into day-by-day operations.

What a frustrating challenge for leaders whose success is built on prowess in solving problems — the more they fall back on their “go-to” skill, the less agile their companies become.

Tom Tavares is SCNetwork’s lead commentator on organizational effectiveness and a senior organizational psychologist. In addition to managing in large corporations, consulting in varied industries and coaching executives, he is also the author of The Mind Field, published by Carswell. He can be reached at dr.tomtavares@gmail.com.

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Talent management comes of age (Strategic capability)

By Karen Gorsline

For years, both HR and business leaders have said talent management is an organizational strategic capability to maintain a sustainable business and support growth.

However, in reality, talent management fell far short of what was required for a variety of reasons:

• It was restricted to a small proportion of the organization — high potentials scattered across the organization.

• There was too much of a focus on setting up technology to record and track these few individuals than having meaningful discussions and developing the talent.

• The emphasis was on identifying, tracking and developing high potentials and also managing the bottom 10 per cent of performers out of the organization.

• The rest of the organization, many of whom delivered the day-to-day success of the business, was ignored.

The presentation by Jim Peters and Annette Reid illustrated how talent management can be a more robust process. Their process differs from the traditional approach in a number of ways:

• It takes into consideration the contribution of a broader range of individuals with different kinds of talent, in different phases of their development.

• It provides a more disciplined way of looking at potential through the lens of learning agility.

Organizations have always struggled with the critical or key role expert who is not really high potential but requires attention for retention and continued professional growth. A more comprehensive type of talent management process can accommodate that need:

• Those who are not high potential can see they are valued contributors and appreciated. Even those who are a poor fit can better understand expectations and not feel they are losers.

• By having a clear focus on performance over time and a structured way of looking at potential for the future, the mystery is taken out of the criteria, the process and career aspirations. Calibration by management teams moderate assessment within a common context. While still subjective, assessments are more likely to be based on content and more consistent.

• There is the potential for tracking and quantification but the emphasis is on conversations to improve performance and support development.

With this evolution, talent management has finally come of age. Talent management now taps into the potential of the broader organization in a more sophisticated way and makes conversations and management of people as important as managing numbers and processes.

Karen Gorsline is SCNetwork’s lead commentator on strategic capability and leads HR Initiatives, focused on facilitation and tailored HR initiatives. She has taught HR planning, held senior roles in strategy and policy, managed a large decentralized HR function and directed a small business. She can be reached at gorslin@pathcom.com.

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