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Talking talent with employees – to tell or not to tell?

The dilemma of 'to tell or not tell?' a high-potential employee that they have been identified as such has been around for decades. It is a question that is confronted by every organisation as it develops its strategic talent management function.

Some argue that no, you should not tell a high potential they have been identified as such. This aversion can stem from issues created by executives and managers telling high potentials that they have been earmarked for future promotion or fast-tracking in such a way that has created problems within the organisation. 

These problems include the risk of inadvertently creating an implied contract for promotion, special or elite status, or a set of expectations that may not come about. Some managers and HR professionals also believe that the identification of high potentials should be kept secret if the criteria used for identifying them are at all unclear, as this could risk demotivating other employees. 

The reticence to be open with employees is understandable in companies where open discussion has not been handled correctly and has resulted in jealousies, unfulfilled expectations or demotivated employees. 

However, not talking talent with your employees is likely to create a whole new set of problems. 

The first issue is that within companies with a “do not tell” policy, everyone knows who the high potentials are anyway. These are the individuals who leave for month-long general manager programmes, get to play golf with the visiting senior executives from corporate, or are extended invitations to the corporate strategy meeting. More importantly, these are the individuals who are given rapid promotions or the juiciest assignments. Everyone knows, but they don’t know why, and their preferred treatment is often therefore viewed as unfair and inequitable, leading to a culture of rumour-driven whispering. 

Another issue is that true high potential employees are looking for enhanced developmental opportunities in order to learn and expand their capabilities. They have options to go elsewhere if their company is not talking to them about these opportunities and showing them a clear and defined path to developing their career.   

This is why it is important to openly tell a high potential that that they have been designated at such, but equally important to be careful about what you communicate. It should be positioned not as an elite status or right, and not as a badge of honour that will automatically last forever, but an opportunity that carries responsibilities. In a well-communicated approach, being a high potential means you are going to be given tougher assignments and that you are going to be more closely scrutinised by senior executives of the organisation. 

Telling a high potential is critical to creating a transparent succession management process. Managers and executives need to have a language of talent, designated tools and frameworks to differentiate their talent, and the managerial courage to effectively support its development.

A language of talent facilitates both the identification and development of all employees, not just the high-potentials, and helps to eliminate the unintended negative consequences of secrecy. Every employee has their own talents and their own degree of potential. By adopting an open approach to talking about talent where employees understand their strengths, weaknesses and areas for improvement, and by giving career-focused, positive, corrective and actionable feedback, each individual will be in a much better position to realise their own potential within the organisation, and the overall culture will be much more productive. 

Companies should absolutely tell their high-potential employees that are they seen as such. The question they should be asking is how they talk openly, consistently and transparently about the future with all of their talent.

Steve Newhall is managing partner of leadership & talent consulting, UK at Korn Ferry