For many, talent management still holds an air of mystery; it’s considered something of a dark art, something that goes on behind closed doors. Organisations speak highly of their talent programmes, yet a surprisingly high number of people I speak to continue to tell me “my organisation has a talent programme, but nobody really knows who is on it, or what you have to do to get on it.” And so we come back to the age old question … Should we tell our top talent that they are talented or not?

Instinctively, everyone has their own answer to this one, although in many cases the organisation’s views and those of its leaders aren’t aligned. And so begin the problems! If an organisation decides not to tell, it needs to be confident that NONE of its leaders will tell. As soon as one decides to “go rogue” and start telling his / her teams if they are / aren’t high potential, others will naturally start to ask questions. If they don’t find the answers they so desire, we need only imagine the impact.

The question of whether to tell your High Potentials that they are talented is hugely contentious. Over the years I have seen many executive boards grappling with this very issue (and often never reaching agreement). Clearly there are positives and negatives to both approaches … If you tell, you engender a culture of openness and, perhaps more importantly, self-belief. Any parent will tell you that a child who is told they are great at something will inevitably do better at it than a child who is told they are bad at it. By telling people that you believe they have potential, you can encourage them to be great and fulfil that potential. Human nature is such that, people generally want to know that their efforts have been noticed.

By failing to tell your HiPo’s that you recognise their potential, you risk them becoming disengaged and seeking recognition elsewhere. After all, who wants to stay somewhere they are not appreciated?

But the same can be true of telling them … one you tell someone they are special, you raise their expectations. If you can’t meet those expectations, they will find someone who can. Or maybe they just believe that if you think they are special, then it’s likely others will too, so they go off into the big wide world, looking for someone that will show their appreciation with a bigger role or a bigger salary.

And so the debate rumbles on and on …. And that’s before we even get started on the possible impact on those who aren’t deemed to be talent! But let’s save that one for another day (and yes, before you ask, I do think that needs at least to be considered and managed in some way).

There’s no “one size fits all” approach and different things work in different organisations, but my vote is in favour of openness. We’re all adults here and let’s face it, Talent Management isn’t a dark art! If we believe someone has potential, why wouldn’t we tell them? Surely it’s then up to us to manage the after-effects of that and to set clear expectations of what that does and doesn’t mean in a particular organisational context.

 If someone has potential, we would hope that they would have a certain level of self-awareness and keep abreast of the wider market anyway. By telling them that we believe they have potential, then we’re really just showing that we’re all on the same page and committed to working together as much as we can to realise it.

Whichever way you decide to go, here are some tips to guide you through the process:

1)      Get consensus and stick to it.
Consistency is key here; either tell all or tell none! Once some know and others don’t, the harm is done and mistrust starts to creep in.

2)       If you do tell them, set clear expectations and stick to them.
Being a High Potential isn’t a meal ticket and HiPo’s shouldn’t expect to dine out on it for the rest of their career without actually delivering anything. Delivery in the “day job” is fundamental  …. Make sure that’s clear from the outset.
Also be mindful of what you’re promising; if you say you will do something, make sure you follow-through, otherwise you risk damaging the credibility of your entire talent programme.

3)      When you have made a decision to tell or not tell, stand by it and MOVE ON!
I can’t emphasise this enough. Don’t breed paralysis in your talent programmes by spending all your time debating your philosophy. Get clear on what you stand for, why you’re doing it and what outcomes you want, then move to action. I’m not saying don’t review to make sure you’re getting the culture and outcomes you want – this is crucial – but I’ve seen may organisations fail to achieve talent objectives because they got so caught up in the debate about how to do it, that nothing ever actually happened!

So ultimately, it’s not really a question of “anointing” but one of real openness, expectation setting and delivery (on both sides!). After all, with Talent comes responsibility!

We’d love to hear your views and experiences … join the debate & add your comments below. We’ve also set up a new LinkedIn group to share views and experiences on All Things Talent! Become part of our community … Join us by clicking the link below

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