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Whirling Chief
Nº 104

Having Talent vs. Being a Talent (And Why You Should be Transparent)

By Sandro Krug

Talent Management is a top priority for most companies. To attract the right talents and to develop them in balance with the company’s strategic focus – and the employee’s aspirations and needs – remains challenging, but is key to success.

Without considering the employees’ aspirations, plans, or needs, we risk losing important capabilities & skills that are needed to successfully compete. A dismissal may also lead to the effect of unwanted costs (e.g., hiring costs, on-boarding costs, time spent helping new colleagues get up to speed, etc.). So one better tackle this topic wisely.

Does having a talent qualify you as ‘High Potential’?
Outcomes of the specific company talent management strategy are reviewed on a regular basis at all corporate levels. This is an effective way to assess the company’s strengths and needs for the upcoming years.

But before we start to identify different aspects of talent management, we first need to clarify what “talent” really means.

The business dictionary defines talent as either a) a natural ability to excel at a duty or action, or b) a group of people, such as employees, who have a particular aptitude for certain tasks.

Both definitions refer to a certain talent in a particular area. They cannot claim a certain person is a talent, but has a talent in a specific area. And here it begins to become interesting.

Most companies make heavy use of talent definitions like High Potential, High Professional, Significant Contributor, Rising Star, etc., to cluster employees in a certain category.

This is an effective way to get an overview of the strengths and needs of the assessed employees, and the perception of them in the eyes of their line managers. It also lays a great foundation for future training and education activities to better execute the company strategy.

On the other hand, this can also lead to an undesired outcome when people perceive they have been “labeled.” Having been nominated as High Potential or Rising Star feels good.

By categorising people into clusters, we step away from saying an employee has a certain talent in a technical or functional area, but rather assign people to a talent category that is often misunderstood and associated with certain expectations.

Someone who has been nominated as High Potential because of his outstanding technical skills might be promoted to a higher position with the effect that he also needs to a lead a bigger team in a complex matrix structure. The fact that some development steps in leadership have not been addressed upfront leads to an enormous stretch for this individual.

So is this High Potential overall a talent or a technical talent? How many High Potentials have been supported throughout their careers with exciting assignments, career plans, and promotions? And how many of them were discussed in talent sessions with 2-3 talents in a special field, but were treated as jack of all trades? How many of them needed to quit because they were promoted too quickly and may be in the wrong positions? How many of them got sick and are still suffering from not having met the expectations of the company for their High Potentials due to the Peter principle?

So, are these labels really meaningful and is this the right way to get an overview of the future leaders of a company?

From an employee’s perspective, the talent management concept of his employer might not be of special interest. The main focus in his view should always be the company’s interest in his career development plan and his aspirations. His line manager should discuss his short-, mid-, and long-term career aspirations and support him in reaching those milestones. That may all sound about right, only now things start to get tricky.

In development discussions, strengths and needs of the employee should be discussed and it should be a joint effort to continuously improve areas of improvement and strengthen one’s talents.

Communicate talent status
You should tell the people their designation, but you should be very careful what you communicate. Do not portray any talent category as an elite status or privilege. Do communicate that the designation is context-bound and one could be assigned with a talent category based on the future assessment of projects, assignments, or performance.

One of the roadblocks preventing most companies from communicating the designation to their people is the inability of managers and executives to have career-focused, positive, corrective, and actionable feedback with all of their direct reports.

Telling people how they are positioned and perceived is important in creating a transparent succession management process. Transparency is a differentiator of a high impact succession management system. It produces the requisite talent needs of the organization in a just-in-time fashion, allowing the organization the ability to be flexible and successfully responsive to their changing issues, problems, and challenges. In addition, this leads to positive effects, such as increased employee engagement, increased employee retention, timely feedback to employees, improvement of manager abilities to provide feedback, targeted development, a culture of high performance, and enhanced employee exposure.

When talent is scarce, a “do not tell” talent management policy is counterproductive. Instead, organizations are best served by improving the communication skills of managers and providing them with a “language of talent.”

To use the language of talent across the organization clearly, you should establish some guiding principles.

  • Let people know that their status is only for the current year, and that the status might be changed. Not only will this help you avoid any sense of entitlement, people will stay motivated to perform and to continue their development. In addition, if people know they will be reviewed annually and that their status could change, this will take the pressure off when you have to let someone know they are no longer in this or that category. Also, by limiting a status for one year, you can benefit from the fact that High Potentials feel that they have to stay in this category for years, or even a lifetime. This can reduce stress and associated expectations that may lead to the definition of the respective High Potential category a company may have.
  • Create a communication strategy. Have a plan to ensure that all employees understand the requirements and expectations; know what they need to do to be considered a high performer and high potential; and understand that if they are not nominated one year, they have the opportunity to be reconsidered in the future.
  • Train line managers how to conduct a development discussion and educate them on how to lead constructive discussions with a mid- and long-term outlook.
  • Create a culture of inclusion and make sure that all people who contribute feel respected and valued for their contribution to the company. Avoid diva thinking by reducing the duration of talent status to one year.


  • 17 April 2017

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