How to find and manage the high flyers in your business

16 December 2015 -


Staff with exceptional performance and potential can drive businesses on to new heights. But how do you manage them to get the best out of your team?

Guest blogger Adrian Furnham

What happened to the hype about talent management? The recruitment, selection, development and deployment of High Flyers was, supposedly, the most important thing companies could do to thrive and survive…or so we were told by the gurus. The issue was finding the elusive wunderkind.

It was all bull market rhetoric that used to include similar concepts such as the war for talent. Recall the now almost preposterous notion that there was a limited and decreasing number of super-talented young people who were the leaders of the future and that companies had to fight hard to get them. Fight hard, of course, meant giving them incredible (dare one say banker-like) packages to lure them to join the company. But worth it: they are saviours!

Now the brightest-of the-bright seem to be stacking shelves or babbling in call-centres, and talent management seems to have quietly gone off the agenda in many companies. But even when it was all the rage – and it will return – the whole business was fraught with problems.

There were essentially three important issues. The first was the criteria by which someone became classified, “honoured” or labelled with the term. The most common policy was to have a performance-potential grid. High flyers were the few with a record of high performance and who were judged also to have high potential. The appeal of the grid is that it is prescriptive about what you do with people given where they in the map.

All very well if you have “good numbers”. But what is the quality of the data on which this nomination occurs? Question a little further and you walk into a hall of mirrors, a chimera, a fudge.

Start with the easier of the two: performance. Ask to see the performance data: behavioural indications of overall job performance. Easy enough to measure sales people, but how do you measure the performance of young accountants, bankers, doctors or teachers? What are the metrics? Note the plural.

Most organisations are amnesic about past performance. Go look at your file: yes you are allowed to! What does it contain? Perhaps the record of half a dozen failed performance management systems filled out unhappily and very casually by your boss. It is difficult to get good behavioural performance data on individuals that reflect their overall performance in jobs. The government obsession with targets means that you certainly can get data now but because single metrics are used you get very biased, target oriented (only) behaviours.

Who are the high-flying bus drivers who are targeted for senior roles: supervisor, inspector, planner? Those with a good record. What is that? What they are measured on. And that is? On time performance. Leading to drivers not bothering to collect fares, not stopping for passengers clearly hailing them and driving through red lights. So are high flyers sensation-seeking, manic risk takers?

We all know enough about the perils of performance management to question the nature of the data. But what of rating potential? How easy is this to do reliably and validly? Who makes that judgement and on what basis? Does a person with high EQ but average IQ have more potential than one with high IQ and average EQ? Is a young person burning with ambition, but emotionally unstable, more likely to succeed in business than a more relaxed and stable person? There are data on this but do the raters of talent know and apply it?

Ask the simple question: who rates potential, on what basis and with what information? Is there a shred of evidence that these ratings are reliable (raters agree with each other) and also valid (they make the right choice).

The second problem for talent management is equally interesting. Should the list of the chosen ones, the high flyers, be public? Should we know who is in the gold group or whatever it is called?

This can cause two undesirable consequences: smugness and complacency in those who made it and envious, demoralising fury in those who did not. A double whammy because you simultaneously let the striving relax and upset all the others. You also have to explain the criteria by which people are or are not put in the group landing you back with problem one, which is also possibly a secret.

So why not let the classification be secret (to senior managers, or head HR people)? Will this cause more or less trouble? People will notice that they are treated differently: some are invited to expensive business school short courses and others not. And secrets will out, which often makes things worse for what it says about senior management and HR in particular.

Third, there is the problem of social mobility in and out of the exclusive club.

How porous is the membrane in the sense of those once classified High Flyers lose their status and those who did not quite make it be reclassified? And if so, what are the criteria for losing membership (failing to meet KPI/KRA targets?) or being reclassified? Of course, there will always be some movement but given the very dodgy nature of the classification in the first place one might expect it to be sufficient.

This partly solves the complacency and jealousy problem above.

Adrian Furnham is a business psychologist and author of 80 books and 1,000 scientific papers. He is an adjunct professor at the Norwegian Business School

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