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How to Help Your Executives Have Effective Talent Discussions

March 16, 2022

Ken Keener

in BLOG

Your executives are the talent champions of your organization. Learn five key elements to help your executives have effective talent discussions to deliver on your company’s strategy.


“Yes, turnover is higher than usual right now, for everyone. But we’re being hit really hard. In Q1 we lost some of our critical rising talent. We’re bleeding crucial talent that we can’t replace. What do we do?” I’m hearing a common variation of this theme right now from HR as they struggle with turnover related to what some call the Great Resignation. In many cases, they’re struggling to address the impacts of critical turnover because their executives aren’t having effective talent discussions.

There’s no question that CEOs and HR are worried about talent at the moment. DDI’s Global Leadership Forecast sounded it. The most recent report by The Conference Board amplified it: attracting and retaining talent is the number one priority for CEOs globally.

To that call I see many executives and HR leaders teaming up to do a lot of good things. Good things like revising their leadership competency models, launching innovative programs, deploying 360s, and enlisting critical C-suite sponsorship. I could go on and on. 

But the crucial step many of them are missing is having effective talent discussions. Executives need to be meeting regularly to discuss the current and future capabilities of their teams, and the risks ahead. However, few executives know how to host these conversations.

That’s where HR can have a huge impact. In this piece, I’ll discuss how HR can facilitate better talent conversations among their executives. That way, executives and HR can start to truly assess the impact of turnover, and what to do to change their talent strategy for the future.


The Pivotal Elements of Effective Talent Discussions

The most productive talent-building cultures are set apart by their capabilities and disciplines in holding highly effective talent discussions. These are those candid exchanges (indeed, sometimes debates) activated within executive teams.

Talent discussions answer vital questions, usually about specific talent. Here are some examples: 

  • What are the distinctive (vs. generic) leadership capabilities that will fuel competitive performance at our company?
  • What is the true readiness of Sherrice to address the future challenges of that next level, critical role?
  • What one pivotal question must be answered to confirm assertions of Juan’s high potential? 
  • What development experiences will have the greatest leverage in accelerating Susan’s succession readiness?
  • What are we willing to invest in Troy to minimize his flight risk?

These and other tough questions are pivotal elements of effective talent discussions. Whether part of a formal talent review process or embedded in ongoing executive team meetings, these discussions build essential alignment, strong commitment, and clear accountability for action. And they maximize the relevance and impact of all the “good things” we do to build organizational talent.

Building on these vital questions talent discussions must answer, I’ll share the five essential keys executive teams need to ensure their talent discussions are effective.


Key 1: Be Intentional About Initiating Talent Discussions

Whose job is it, anyway? Who owns the talent discussion?

While the ultimate accountability for developing organizational talent lies with executives, the challenge of HR is to add indispensable value in helping them deliver on that accountability. HR’s job is to drive effective talent discussions—we do this in service to an executive team’s accountability. When HR steps up to intentionally plan and skillfully facilitate high-quality talent discussions, its internal “stock price” doubles. It may even triple, given the strategic value brought to the organization.

With competing priorities, we are challenged to translate good intention into execution. A wise senior executive once advised me, “Ken, what gets calendared gets done.” This applies to talent conversations.

They are neither left to chance by hoping for free space on an agenda nor prioritized reactively after a key talent takes flight. Decide, in advance with the executive sponsor, when and how talent discussions will fit into your overall talent development operating cycle—and then make them happen.


Key 2: Define What High Potential Means

For every strong-minded executive in a talent discussion (i.e., every one of them!), there will likely be a different, yet often unarticulated, sense of what high potential means. Strong HR partners build upfront alignment within executive teams by creating a shared definition of high potential—specific for their organization.

You’ll likely find this HR partner setting the stage by sharing, at a high level (mind you), research on characteristics known to differentiate leadership potential. But the real exam question for executive team consensus goes something like this, “What are those critical few leadership capabilities that will make—or break—success in achieving our business strategy in the years ahead?”

Frameworks such as a Success ProfileSM can be useful in answering this question. Such a profile creates a direct link between business strategy and talent requirements. It also sets an essential cornerstone for quality talent conversations and follow-on development strategies. 

As we apply this shared definition of leadership potential, here are a few pitfalls to avoid:

1. Confusing performance with potential.

While high performance can well be considered a “ticket to entry” (proving a person can demonstrate solid leadership fundamentals), anchoring conversations around those critical few differentiating capabilities for future success will train the executive team’s focus and investments on those talents with the greatest promise.

2. Blending possibility with probability.

Fear of expressing dissenting views can often be masked with a statement such as, “Sure, I guess it’s possible that Jeanette could succeed in that role. (After all, anything is possible!)” But executives should not and cannot get off that easy.

The executive team’s call is to make well-informed decisions with a view to probability. A sage talent expert often challenges, “Would you bet your next paycheck that they will achieve top tier performance at the next level of leadership?”

3. Ignoring the candidate’s career interests.

High potentials are those with both the capability and desire to succeed in greater leadership roles. Note the importance of sizing up both skill and will. As talent champions, we must understand and honor a person’s career goals and aspirations.

If the person does not aspire to a greater leadership role, then they do not meet a fundamental gate for high potential—for now. Have the courage and respect to make the call. There are better means to recognize and reinforce high-value talents than disproportionately investing in retention and development as we would a high potential.


Key 3: Use Data to Prepare for Talent Conversations

Another key to effective talent discussions centers on good quality data as the basis for assessment and decision making. The same rating errors that can plague selection interviewing (such as halo and horns effects) can bleed into talent conversations.

We’ve all been there. That one damning story about when a new leader really “stepped in it” and everyone saw the action and impacts. The problem—that one story took place over five years ago, and it was an isolated incident. People close to that leader knew he took learnings to heart and has since shown up a stronger leader.

Executives can be particularly prone to this error, especially if they manage large departments. With limited interaction with parts of the team, a single event (positive or negative) may serve as their sole impression of a person. But that can be a tremendous mistake, as they may overlook highly talented people and overestimate those who have shown little growth.

Challenge question: For a key leadership talent under review in your organization, any chance you are repeating a dated story to yourself or others? Effective talent discussions bring forward recent, relevant, and impactful examples to correct reputational biases and challenge personal pet peeves or potentially imbalanced perceptions.

Human resource partners have a duty to ensure all talent is provided fair representation and just consideration. This calls for courage to assertively challenge potential biases.

At minimum, leadership teams should internally assess candidates against consistent criteria. This can be done using a standardized rating scale, with ratings supported by specific, behavioral examples. At the other more rigorous end of the continuum, driven by higher stakes talent decisions, many organizations leverage tools like immersive executive assessments. These tools provide validated data to understand, in-depth, a rising leader’s strengths and areas for growth.

At either extreme, during effective talent discussions HR leaders and executive team members, together, hold out for and test to ensure fair and balanced consideration of all talent under review.


Key 4: Set the Right Tone and Expectations for Talent Conversations

Run a talent review conversation like a business meeting—because it is. Define outcomes, create an agenda, send pre-read materials, facilitate toward targeted results, balance participation, and make any mid-course adjustments.

That said, we have all experienced meetings that tragically turn into one-way presentations and tedious page turns. The key is full engagement and real conversation. To maximize engagement, consider the following:

  • Enlist the senior sponsor to frame goals and expectations for the meeting.
  • Expect executive team members to “take the mic.” They should represent (briefly!) their talent by sharing what they know about their career aspirations, strengths/liabilities, and views of risk/impact of loss.
  • Agitate for immediate reactions and dialogues—agreements, dissenting views, and full utilization of assessment data on hand.
  • Drive for decisions and consensus. Whether it be placement on a nine-box, succession chart, or development program roster, challenge the team to “stick the landing” on key decisions even in the midst of disagreements or reservations.

The subject and stakes of these conversations call for the highest levels of trust, candor, constructive intent, and receptivity to different points of view—all hallmarks of the healthiest executive teams.

One last thing: HR partners, while you are typically the facilitator, that is not your only duty. You are called and paid to formulate and bring an informed point of view. Bring your professional perspectives, insights, and recommendations forward.

But be sure to do this while also facilitating the high involvement and ownership of the executive team. Not an easy balancing act, but important. Don’t leave your personal, professional concerns, or convictions unspoken. Your voice matters.


Key 5: Create Goals and Development Actions Based on Talent Discussions

Do you ever feel like when you are in a talent discussion you are watching a re-run? Hearing the same names, the same observations, sharing often-repeated concerns, re-contemplating the same possible moves?

To be fair, executives may be addressing a “tough nut to crack” situation, that requires repeated examination. Many times though, the “re-run” betrays a failure to define and assign accountability for follow-up actions.

As part of the talent discussion discipline, institute the simple “who, what, by when” accountability chart for each talent discussed or topic processed. Inspect what is expected by establishing quarterly progress reviews with the team. Be sure to use the accountability chart as the structure for those follow-up reviews.

Effective Talent Discussions at the Executive Level Build Lasting Legacies

Effective talent discussions unlock prime opportunities to build talent, build teams, and build legacies.

Building organizational talent is ultimately a team sport. Through effective talent discussions, executives experience some of the most powerful teamwork of their careers. This teamwork builds both strong cohesion and high performance. A senior vice president once said to me, “Ken, this is some of the most powerful work we have ever done as a team!”

And for executives, effective talent discussions provide a key platform for building lasting legacies. I hear from many retiring executives. I ask them to reflect on the most satisfying aspects of their careers.

Without exception, at the top of their list is the chance to champion the career development of rising leaders, many previously undiscovered or underrepresented. Effective talent discussions are the keys to unlocking these doors of opportunity.


Check out our webinar series for boards of directors: What Your Board Needs to Know About C-Suite Leadership Development.

Ken Keener provides executive coaching, leadership team facilitation, and strategic talent consulting to organizations addressing critical talent priorities for business success. When he’s not coaching, you might hear Ken singing baritone in the Capital University’s Choral Union, an award-winning select mixed ensemble, part of Capital University’s Conservatory of Music in Columbus, Ohio.

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