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How can HR realise people's potential?

Kate Bowman and Dan Lucy pin down what potential really is and how to spot it

What is potential? It’s a question many organisations are grappling with as they review their approaches to talent and performance management.

To discuss this issue HR magazine brought together head of research at Roffey Park Dan Lucy, who has recently studied employee experiences of the nine-box grid, and Kate Bowman, head of HR at Gatwick Airport, who has been working with Roffey Park to redefine performance and potential in her organisation. Here are the edited highlights of the discussion:

Dan Lucy: What came out of the research was that it’s not really about the grid itself; it’s about the strategy, process and culture that sits around it. The grid is just a tool – you need to have a conversation around the tool, and that depends on the manager’s capability to have a good or difficult conversation.

Kate Bowman: The question there is do you share potential ratings or not? We don’t. We use the nine-box grid for performance, which is tied to the what and the how, but we split performance and potential. Just because you have an individual who is high performing, it doesn’t mean that they are high potential.

We look for three things for potential: ability (performance), ambition and how engaged they are in the organisation. You have to have all three. We talk about people being ‘ready now’, ‘developing in role’ and ‘contributing in place’.

DL: What’s really interesting there is the language and how things are framed. Language is so key to this. ‘Ready now’ – it’s so clear what that means, it’s more practical and concrete, whereas the word ‘potential’ is a bit vague. One of the questions is if you have people who are high potential but you don’t tell them they are on the radar, what are the implications for engagement and retention?

KB: If someone has a huge amount of ability, ambition and engagement they almost know they are high potential. They are driving the organisation to say ‘what’s next?’ There’s a bit of push and pull, and we actively encourage people to push. Your development and career are not just about us delivering it on a plate. But the dilemma for HR is how do we not lose those shining stars who aren’t so pushy? There’s a requirement for the organisation to identify people and drive those conversations.

DL: In the research, one of the things people valued was being told [they were high potential]. The other thing that was really clear was the role of HR in facilitating cross-organisational moves. If you’ve got someone high potential they may say ‘what next?’ That’s where HR comes in.

KB: That’s absolutely HR’s function – to oversee the talent map and link it into succession. Otherwise it can be quite siloed. HR needs to push the organisation to think more broadly about the next step for people. It might be we can’t satisfy them and the conversation we need to have is about their next step outside of the business.

DL: That can lead to managers shying away from the conversation. Potential can be difficult to capture and understand, and that’s the bit managers struggle with. Potential is a moving picture; someone might not want to move up now, but they might in a few years. It’s a changing picture but it can become fixed in people’s heads.

KB: It falls to HR to keep that process live and ongoing. It’s dangerous to do it once every three years, as I’ve seen some organisations do. We encourage the business to refresh it at least once a year. You have to keep those conversations going. It’s three groups: the managers, the individuals and HR facilitating.

It should be more of a coaching relationship [between managers and team members]; managers should be clear on how ambitious and engaged their people are.

DL: It’s about open and honest conversation. People can become disengaged if they are not in the top right [box of the nine-box grid]. That drives people to look elsewhere. But if they have an open and honest conversation they understand they could become high potential.

KB: One of the things we have to think about is where we don’t have people who are ‘ready now’ , but have a business requirement.

Then we have to go externally. It’s a balancing act between culturally making sure people see Gatwick as a great place to develop but being pragmatic and accepting that for some roles we will have to bring people in. This model [for performance and potential] helps as it shows where we have shortfalls. We can say: ‘We just don’t have anyone ready now’.

DL: The crucial thing is the business need. What is the strategy? What skills do you need now and in the future? That determines what a high potential person is.

It’s the language and the framing and being clear about what you mean by it. It’s important for any organisation to know what talent it has and where the gaps are.

Some organisations are using algorithms to work out who is talent. For me that raises the issue of whether this is art or science. I think it’s art. You are in the realms of prediction as you don’t know how someone is going to behave in a more senior role.

KB: You have people who want it to be a science so that when they have to have a difficult conversation it’s the process that made the decision. You have the other side that wants to be more subjective and talks about ‘gut feel’. For me it’s a balance. You can measure someone’s performance based on what they do; it’s tangible. The ‘how’ becomes more subjective but we have clear descriptors. The bit that becomes less clear is potential, because unless you are having that conversation with people about ambition or engagement, you are making an assumption. HR needs to challenge and ask ‘what evidence do you have to think that? What conversations are you having?’

DL: In the research the word ‘subjectivity’ was used by a lot of the raters. They need the training and support to realise part of what they do is subjective.

KB: If they replace the word ‘subjective’ with ‘uncomfortable’, that’s what they are saying. And yes, it is, as this is someone’s career. The only way to be more comfortable is to ensure you’ve engaged with that person, got the evidence and had that conversation.

DL: The nine-box grid is just a framework. You need the capability of managers. They need to be involved as much as possible so they understand it, feel comfortable with it and have the capability to use it in a way that is engaging.