Turning ‘Talent’ on its Head

Hot air balloons against sunset

For over a decade now, what is sometimes called the “nine-box grid” or “high-potential” model for mapping the performance and potential of corporate employees has been in vogue. It looks something like this:

nine-box grid diagram

The seductive idea is that the golden girls and boys in the top right hand “L” are the talent who will drive the organisation forward. Investment of organisational resources follows: elite development programmes; plum promotions; favourable bonus schemes; and so on.

Conversely, those at the bottom left are problem children who can’t or won’t perform, and unless they pull their socks up and get with the programme, we would be better off without them.

Enthusiasts even suggested that we might have an annual cull of this bottom 10%, like the armies of the Roman Empire. Decimation: cut out the dead wood; encourage the survivors. Thankfully, the more extreme versions of this approach were moderated in practice.

From neuroscience, we know that ‘fear’ triggers natural unconscious responses that are counterproductive in improving employee functioning; causing deterioration in cognitive processing and an increase in self-protecting defensive responses. Some form of compliance might be the result, but that is unlikely to add up to a meaningful version of top performance.

I am not arguing that poor performance should go unaddressed; nor that great performance should be unrecognised. But how we go about these things, and what we do with whom, is hugely important.

The HR Director of a national supermarket chain was discussing leadership programmes with me. He mentioned they were spending their biggest per capita budgets on the top right-hand group, their “high potentials”. The paradox, he observed, is that these people largely looked after themselves anyway. They are motivated to learn and succeed. “Vertical learning” opportunities such as international tours of duty, leadership of key projects or placements onto non-profit boards (like the excellent Step on Board programme from the National Council for Voluntary Organisations) give them the personal growth they relish. Something new to learn, with intellectual and personal challenge, can happen at little or no external cost, keeping this small group interested, committed and retained within the business.

"To write off the bottom-left group is, in my view, as much an abdication of leadership as failure to address performance."

The middle diagonal often consists of individuals who can gain great value through inclusive leadership and coaching from their established leaders. This is a large cohort in any organisation and with inclusion, encouragement and empowerment, can grow significantly in capability. Incremental performance gains in such a large group naturally have a substantial impact on the whole business. When coached and motivated, these individuals move from the safe ground of middle management to high peaks of personal mastery and strong individual contribution. They may become role models, mentoring other colleagues and interacting productively with suppliers and customers.  Such development work requires established leaders to demonstrate patience, model inclusive behaviour and above all offer encouragement: coaching at the level of mindset as well as capability. Results will follow – slowly at first, then habitually – and then the bar can be raised. Looking to performance systems from sports coaching, we can say that this group benefits from repeated practice, effort based praise, visibility of progress and orientation towards “personal bests.”

To write off the bottom-left group is, in my view, as much an abdication of leadership as failure to address performance. There are cost implications, and leaders must look at their own culpability, in creating or perpetuating the situation. If they are recent hires, what have we done to on-board them effectively, induct them into our culture and be agile in correcting errors and early mistakes? How well have we done at maintaining motivation and turning things around for them when they are still getting to grips with the organisation?  If they are old hands, have we done enough to credit their organisational knowledge and past achievements, by recognising and tapping into valuable skills and knowledge they have acquired? Although we cannot linger in the past, we can and should recognise what was good and important in what went before. That requires humility from new brooms, as well as a determination to hold on to old hands who are willing to commit to future growth.

Motivation is at the heart of these turnarounds – taking time to understand where each colleague is coming from, contracting for change, offering realistic support to turn the situation around and being clear about the consequences for good as well as poor performance. Managers need to develop awareness of their own impact on their teams – the unintended as well as intended consequences – through regular feedback. They need to be equipped to coach, engage and lead.

The talent model we have been working with for too long, the nine-box grid, carries with it an assumption that we invest in a few, and write off others. I would like to turn that model of talent on its head. Instead, I suggest that high performance organisational cultures arise from effective, inclusive leaders; conscious development of great coaching and interaction skills; and an underpinning belief that talent is not the province of a small elite but, in fact, the property of every individual in the business, to be drawn out and made to shine.

Patrick Ballin