How to Use Performance Reviews to Spot Future Talent

I once attended a high-level conference of executives managing high growth enterprises and many were in industries facing extreme disruption.

In a panel discussion on talent management, these fast-moving c-levels bemoaned increasing turnover rates and agreed that "adaptability" was prerequisite for future talent.

And they were right. Generic job descriptions have a tough time keeping pace with modern business.

But apart from revamping your entire organizational hierarchy (which is neither easy, nor a sure bet for solving your succession planning problems), what can you do to align the right talent to the right role? Here are some practical steps to take.

Go Beyond "The Role"

As it turns out, HR consultant Professor David Clutterbuck had a similar experience to my own.

David was moderating a panel of HR practitioners on the topic of succession planning and was completely blown away by one panelist's (a top HR dog at a leading multinational) comment that, "We are running 21st Century organizations with 19th Century ideas about succession planning."

The comment sent David on an in-depth expedition into succession planning practices in which he interviewed dozens of HR professionals across the globe to find out what works and what doesn't when it comes to succession planning.

Here's one of the biggest problems David uncovered:

"They [HR leaders and managers] expect the individual to adapt to the job description. Yet talented employees rapidly shape the job to their own strengths and interests. The more detailed the job description, the more candidates it is likely to deter and the more likely that the new incumbent will be like the previous one. Yet the transition between one incumbent and the next is an important opportunity for new perspectives. A critical question for candidates is: 'What can you bring to this role, that’s different?'"

Instead of attempting to judge the strength of a candidate on a set of outdated competences, David recommends using three simple criteria to identify future talent:

  1. Continued investment in their own development
  2. Track record of assisting the development of others
  3. Ambition to achieve greater responsibilities

David also sheds light on some of the most common misconceptions among managers and HR leaders that keep them from finding innovative solutions to succession planning. For example, factors such as ethnicity, gender and demand for work-life balance can make a big difference in how a high-potential candidate will view, negotiate and consider a promotion or offer.

And regardless of their background and professional goals, any employee who believes they're responsible for one particular set of tasks will feel justifiably blindsided when they suddenly find out they're expected to change, adapt to, or even innovate a totally new way of doing business, without any official acknowledgement that their role has changed.

By encouraging employees to initiate their own growth and development, you not only foster greater drive and accountability, you leave the door open to getting the kind of game-changing insights that can keep your organization on the leading edge, without having to force it.

But this means managers, execs and HR leaders must be willing to adapt roles and hierarchies to the changing needs of both the business and the people driving it. And that's not going to happen if your performance review process is as rigid and outdated as a jargon-packed job description.

Questions to Ask

Performance reviews are a great way to track the things that really matter.

The key is to consistently collect feedback about an employee's job satisfaction and goal-getting capabilities, and balance those insights with their individual long-term vision for professional growth.

We've all met the account rep who was once an excellent producer on the sales floor and is now a miserable mid-level manager. That's why the success or failure of your performance review and succession planning system depends in no small part, on the questions you ask.

Start by taking the temperature of your talent pool. If you're one of many organizations focused on reducing turnover, you probably already have some form of the 'Are you happy?' meeting in place.

Here are some of the key questions you may want to mix into your performance review process to help guide your succession planning. Keep in mind, these can be distributed and recorded via your performance management tool, or added to the system later if it's something that needs to take place in a more personal or informal setting.

Examples of ‘Are You Happy’ Questions:

  1. Are you happy working here?
  2. Do you feel proud of what you do here?
  3. Do you enjoy coming into work?
  4. What parts of your job make you unhappy?
  5. What part of your work energizes you?

When thinking about succession planning, it's important to remember that everyone develops in different ways and at different speeds. Aligning the 'Are you happy' questions with key project milestones, 360 reviews, or coaching programs is a great way to see what tasks and responsibilities are the most and least motivating for your people.

Knowing what adds to, or detracts from, the energetic reserves of your employees is key to helping you assess how they can excel in the future, whether that's in an established role, a newly created position or a lateral change in the scope of an employee's core responsibilities.

Examples of ‘Long Term Goals’ Questions:

  1. What’s your dream job?
  2. What’s your totally crazy idea that probably could never work, but you’d love if it could?
  3. What do you want to be doing 10 years from now?
  4. Is there someone who you think has an awesome life?
  5. What do you want to do in your next job?
  6. Do you feel like your work helps you make progress towards your goal?
  7. What part of your work here is most in line with your goals?
  8. Do you feel like you’re learning new things at work?
  9. Are there things you’d like to learn?
  10. Is there additional training or education that you’ve considered pursuing?
  11. Can we do anything to better align your work with your goals?
  12. Do you have skills that you think are underutilized at work?

Succession planning at its best is about getting the most out of everyone in your talent pool.

And no one knows how to get the most out of your employees better than your employees themselves. (That's right, they know better than your managers do.)

Instead of assuming you know what positions your individual contributors want to grow into, why not simply ask them what motivates them and where they're looking to go in life?

A great performance management tool will make it easy to align their personal goals with the company’s goals, resulting in smarter succession planning and better productivity from top to bottom (or in this case, bottom to top).

What Data Do You Really Need?

This last point is not going to win me any extra points, but here goes. One of the most helpful succession planning tools also happens to be the most tried and tested: the 9-box.

Love them or hate them, these classic performance plots are a great way to understand who your ideal successors will be. But as leadership development experts like Dan McCarthy have pointed out, a 9-box can also be used to help assess individual contributors and guide development planning.

For example, an organization may create development guidelines based on where an employee places on the grid and then use those guidelines as a sort of performance roadmap, helping to map feeder roles and offer a more personalized internal learning experience with every performance milestone.

According to Dan, "Most organizations use the 9-box as a tool to assess managers for potential to move up in the organization for succession planning. However, I’ve seen some leadership teams use it as way to discuss whether individual contributors have the potential “to grow, learn, and take on new responsibilities”, etc… They’re just defining for themselves what “potential” means, but it’s important to have clear and valid criteria, just as you would when assessing for “leadership” potential."

Your performance management tool can help you customize your 9-box scales in the way that makes the most sense for your organization. Because just like people, every business has different needs on the path to growth and development.

Stay tuned in to what's happening with yours, and you'll have no problem getting the talent you need to stay ahead of the game.