Monthly Archives: August 2008

Judging Talent

No doubt, you are called to appraise people’s performance once or twice a year and in the process, have to pitch in your commentary about talent of some of your subordinates. I have heard of certain companies truly understanding and building talent. I cannot honestly admit that I have seen a lot of them. Some are more disciplined than others – definitely some are more serious about it than others.

The process is far more nuanced than the forms that you fill up on strengths, weaknesses, development and so on and so forth. The more sophisticated ones use the 9-box from “War for talent” or some variation of the same to differentiate the past from the future (potential). And some go many more steps further.

After watching such processes in quite a few companies over the last 20 years or so, here are some observations from my side. If you are a senior manager / executive, it would be interesting to keep these points in mind:

1. At the end of the day, there is a lot of subjectivity in the process. All HR processes, rationalizations, 360 degrees are great attempts to bring some objectivity to the process but at the end of the day when you try to summarize a complex set of human behavior into a few bullet points of positives and negatives, undoubtedly, broad brush and stereotyping will get in. Just admitting that will perhaps force you to think many more times.

2. A small set of data points play an overwhelming role in the final judgment. Good or bad, a few interactions, somehow lead us to form deeply rooted convictions. The underlying O.B. theory is that, as humans, we try to simplify our views of people or events – rather than care to have a lot of nuanced views. I have seen a lot of managers give one or two data points to make their case – and then struggle like hell when asked for a few more data points. Ensure that you have enough data points to back your view. You will surprised how you have formed opinions based on what you have heard or your first interaction etc etc.

3. An ideal talent process should take into account the “end state” to decide the strengths and the gaps. Too often managers write strengths and weaknesses by focusing on the variance between some target that they have in their mind and the appraisee in question. Needless to say, this is one way subjectivity gets injected. But rarely have I seen a manager understand what the employee wants to be eventually and then work backwards from there to accentuate the strengths and develop the gaps. [This is somewhat like a football coach wanting to make a quarterback of everybody!!]

4. Finally, we as humans, far over-rate our ability to judge talent. This gets even more dangerous as managers rise up due to their business strengths and by virtue of that position is now called upon to be the “judge” of talent in their organization. HR needs to play a very strong role in this. Even in “rationalization” sessions, care should be taken to ensure that the highest ranked manager’s view is freely and frankly challenged.

I would be interested in hearing from you some of the great talent development processes or ideas that you have seen (or not seen for that purpose).

Rajib