Finding The Hidden Talent in Your Organization

By: Deborah P. Rubin

Executives tend to have a few key attributes they look for in the next generation of leaders that signal a promise of greater things to come. The executives then become energetic advocates for individuals demonstrating these aspects; they write glowing performance reviews and do what they can to ensure these early stars are in the forefront when promotion decisions are made. Usually, these prized attributes represent a subset of the competencies identified in their organizations’ talent models and constitute a trusted shortcut for busy, experienced executives.

However, there is a cumulative cost for these seemingly obvious choices, as they tend to bestow unearned halos on some and cast shadows on others, causing organizations to miss critical flaws in their targeted talent and to overlook the capabilities of others hidden in plain view.

For the targeted talent, the halo effect created means their advocates assume they possess additional skills and competencies (which may not be true) without actually vetting (or even recognizing) the assumptions. Rapidly promoting these individuals without sufficient due diligence causes organizations to miss the opportunity to correct problem areas early while the employees are still amenable to change (or before decision makers realize that the individual cannot flex). Unfortunately, rapid promotions can reinforce behaviors that will not sustain success at higher levels. Eventually capability gaps can emerge in these “stars” that either cause them to stall or to derail, sometimes spectacularly.

On the flip side, individuals who do not exhibit the prized behaviors to the same extent do not benefit from vocal advocates and may be pushed to the shadows; they are assumed to be lacking in other fundamental skills (again without further verification). There is not sufficient focus and energy in the talent discussion to bring to light their actual contributions and capabilities or to recognize that they are ready for the next challenge. Thus, they become hidden talent, passed over for positions for which they are more qualified and putting brakes on their careers that force them to eventually leave for organizations without such blinders.

For example, some leaders prize an individual who stands out and takes charge. Those individuals who gravitate to the spotlight, manage up well, and ensure acknowledgement for their achievements are thus more likely to be noticed. What may be less clear is how these same individuals influence their peers or how much scorched earth was created to realize those achievements. At the same time, an unintended shadow may also be cast on those who quietly create alignment and generate momentum across the organization as they may also more readily share credit and do not focus on the limelight. Yet, it is not by accident that they are consistently on the teams that make a difference for the organization. The evidence is there, but you must look for it.

What to do:

  • Know which attributes are the shiny objects that may cause you to take shortcuts in your view of talent. For example, beware the assumption that those who are good at managing up are also adept at creating followership; likewise, notice who is creating followership and results without much fanfare.
  • Watch out for buzzwords or adjectives that either push someone into the shadows or create halos. There are substantial diversity implications as the short-cut models may not be valid against a more heterogeneous group.
  • Ensure that talent discussions are based on data. Leverage development assessments to ensure a well-rounded view of the individual that does not rely on assumptions. It is remarkable how much data an organization has regarding its talent that is not included when key decisions are actually made.
  • Identify critical roles in the organization that provide core experiences for developing the talent pipeline and ensure that the scan for internal candidates is broad and the decision process is objective and disciplined. These roles create important paths for developing the future leadership pipeline and should not be clogged by the result of a limited view of organizational resources.
  • If necessary, bring in an external party who will question assumptions and ensure a robust discussion.

It is natural for executives to leverage their own experience in identifying and cultivating talent, and doing so will tend to veer toward quickly creating a type of focus. However, just as stretching remains critical to any physical regimen, an organization must stretch its ability to identify, vet, and grow a wide range of individuals to ensure the overall viability of the talent pipeline and the ongoing success of the next generation of senior executives.

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