Do you have formal methods for identifying and managing the key talent that exists throughout your organization? If so, does the management team have a common language to describe different talent pools?

Successful organizations are effective at identifying their talent and taking the appropriate actions to utilize and develop their people. There are many ways to quantify the human capital in a company. Some like to use the familiar labels of “A, B, and C Players.” Other organizations use complex models that include many groups and tiers within each group. As we work with organizations to identify and evaluate talent, we often use language around following four groups:

  • High Potentials (aka, “Hi-Po”)
  • Top Performers
  • Strong and Steady Performers
  • Low Performers

Of course, there are different shades within each group, but for the sake of simplicity we use these labels to help leaders with key talent management and make human capital decisions.

In order to place individuals in these groups, we most commonly assess them based on three factors: operational results, people skills, and growth potential. The relative scores in each of these areas help determine where to place each person (see below). The following definitions also provide development recommendations for each group.

High Potentials

In every organization there are a rising stars. Regardless of title, they show the potential to be future leaders in the organization (or at least to move to the next level). They bring up new ideas and create opportunities. They bring competency and raw talent that has the potential to continue to grow and mature. They are eager to learn, and are willing to take risks. They want to grow and be successful, and they work well with others. These people make up the organization’s High Potential pool. They have the ability to lead innovative projects, improve existing processes, establish networks and relationships, and bring energy, enthusiasm, and growth.

Often, the critical value of High Potentials is undervalued, even ignored. These valuable employees may even leave the organization in search of opportunity elsewhere. Hi-Pos are your “Super-Keepers”; the people the organization goes out of their way to invest in. They must be given growth opportunities and challenging assignments. Assign them a mentor, give them access to other functions, and expose them to customers. When High Potentials see a path to realize their goals in your organization, they will remain actively engaged.

  • Operational Results: Med-High
  • People Skills: Med-High
  • Growth Potential: High

Top Performers

In every organization there are a handful of individuals that “make a real difference.” They are the MVPs of the organization, making the big plays.

They are at the top of their game, and they know it. They are comfortable being Top Performers. They want to continue doing what they are currently doing so well—they like what they’re doing, and it shows. They are counted on to deliver superior results. They are reliable and have earned the respect of others. Top Performers influence important decisions, make significant contributions, and motivate others to achieve.

Over time, the important contribution of Top Performers may be taken for granted. Ensure that they feel valued, developed, challenged, and recognized. Reward them as Top Performers.

  • Operational Results: High
  • People Skills: High
  • Growth Potential: Med

So, how does a Top Performer differ from a High Potential? The reality is that in day-to-day performance, there may be little noticeable difference. Both are achievers. Both are at the top of their game in their current roles.

However, a High Potential has the ability (and need) to continue rising through the organization. While a Top Performer may have the eventual potential to move to the next level, he or she is often at the peak of his or her level of competence—at least for the time being. Yet, many organizations fail to realize this. They aggressively promote the Top Performer into a position where the Top Performer is now only average (or below average!). Not only has the organization added one more average performer to the ranks of failing leadership, but it has lost an extremely valuable Top Performer.

Strong and Steady Performers

At the core of most organizations are the Strong and Steady. These are the organization’s solid citizens—the loyal workers providing a solid foundation of knowledge, skills, and experience. They play an important role in defining standard practice, common knowledge, and core competence. These are the people that keep the operations going. They serve the customer, both internally and externally.

Strong and Steady employees are loyal workers. They are generally in it for the long-term, so long as their basic needs are met. They need good management, fair policies, clear direction, and the necessary tools and training to keep going. Engage the Strong and Steady employees to contribute their best at work. Develop their skills through regular training, coaching, and feedback.

  • Operational Results: Med
  • People Skills: Med
  • Growth Potential: Low-Med

Low Performers

Almost every organization has members that are not performing well, even if we would claim otherwise. They struggle with the current responsibilities. Their challenges can be with the work itself, their relationships with others, or both. If their problem is with delivering results, it may be that their work is low quality, or their level of output is unacceptable. If their problem is with building relationships of trust, it may be that they are unable or unwilling to collaborate.

Often, Low Performers are aware of the situation and feel stuck in a rut. Being labeled a “Low Performer” may be useless to the individual, but providing options may help them decide how to make progress. Sometimes, Low Performers are simply unaware of their situation. They do not know they are underperforming, or may not understand how their behavior impacts others in the organization.

It is, obviously, in the best interest of all parties to resolve a Low Performer’s situation. Three approaches are:

  • Improve performance in the current job through training, goal setting, etc.
  • Find a better fit within the organization
  • Leave the organization

A Low Performer may overcome the current challenges, make a turn-around, and go on to achieve success. A person may fall into the Low Performer category in one job, yet flourish in another position better suited to their skills and interests. If the first two approaches won’t resolve the situation, terminating the relationship is also an alternative that provides both parties new opportunities.

  • Operational Results: Low-Med
  • People Skills: Low-Med
  • Growth Potential: Low

Final Thoughts

As you think through (formally or informally) your own talent groups, it is important that senior leaders understand and know how to use these groups. It’s not about labels, although these do help us speak a common language when assessing talent. However, it’s vital that employees know where they stand, as well as the development options they have in order to become more successful.

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