Karin’s Leadership Articles

Imagine There Are No Talent Reviews

by | Apr 4, 2014 | Authenticity & Transparency, By Karin Hurt, Career & Learning

Sara called me excitedly: “Karin you know how you’ve been encouraging me to take a lateral move to broaden my experience the perfect job just came open. I can really imagine myself in the role. Can you put in a good word for me?”

“Imagine all the people…”
~ John Lennon

Excellent, I thought. Sara was so convinced she was ready for a promotion, but I knew she had a little more growing to do before she was ready. She was right. This job was perfect for her, and I was glad she was willing to consider a lateral move. I called HR immediately to ensure she would be considered.

“I’m sorry Karin, you don’t have Sara listed as high-potential on the performance-potential grid.” We’ve been told to reserve lateral moves for succession planning candidates.”

Huh? Just how did that make any sense? I understand using the grid to define pools for promotions, but were we really going to stop developing everyone else? Besides if a solid performer can’t be promoted, and can’t move laterally, are we really going to just let them stagnate in the same job? Surely this HR person was confused, so I took it a level higher.

The next conversation went something like this: “Well, I’m not saying we’d never consider Sara for such a move, but maybe you have her in the wrong box. I can move her to high-potential now, if you’d like and put her on the slate.” Okay, now it was getting even more stupid. Systems that need to be played are never effective.

4 Reasons Talent Review Systems Break Down

John Lennon had a point. Good systems can have dangerous side effects. Talent reviews are an important part of a healthy succession planning and development process. Here are few reasons to be careful:

  • Organizations & Priorities Change – I went back and looked though the grids I had used in my organization as an HR Director years ago. Many names from the best parts of the grid have since been promoted and having strong careers within the company. But other high performance-potential candidates have been recruited away or have left to start their own companies. Sadly some of whom we’d invested the deepest development had been caught up in mergers, downsizing, and other drama. There were also people who had been once deemed lower potential now holding significant leadership positions. They’d missed out on much of the development we offered to the others who are no longer around.
  • People Change – I’ve seen organizations get so hung up on doing succession planning down to the lowest levels of the organization, that managers get labelled as high potential or low potential very early in their careers. Labels are hard to change, even when the people do.
  • Potential Is Subjective – Every leader has their own definition of what constitutes high potential. Even with reasonable calibration politics, personality and favoritism can get in the way.
  • Feedback Gets Watered Down – The big rules in most talent reviews are what’s said in the talent review stays in the talent review. Makes sense, to a point. You want people to speak freely without fear of third hand feedback. But if leaders are saying things about a manager that they would not say to that manager, how will they ever grow? I wrote about this in more depth in: “Talent Reviews: What They’re Saying Behind Closed Doors”.

    I’m all for replacement and succession planning. Such processes support more deliberate and fair leadership selection. But don’t fall into the trap of only focusing serious developmental efforts on your shiny stars of the moment. Limiting rich development to the top 20% of your team is a waste. Imagine the power of tapping into ever human being on your team’s most powerful potential.

    PS: Now that I’m an entrepreneur, I was delighted to be featured for the first time in Entrepreneur magazine with my story, Why Sucking Up is Bad For Business.

Karin Hurt

Karin Hurt helps human-centered leaders resolve workplace ambiguity and chaos, so that they can drive innovation, productivity and revenue without burning out employees. She’s the founder and CEO of Let’s Grow Leaders, an international leadership development and training firm known for practical tools and leadership development programs that stick. She’s the award-winning author of four books including Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates and Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results-Without Losing Your Soul and a hosts the popular Asking For a Friend Vlog on LinkedIn. A former Verizon Wireless executive, Karin was named to Inc. Magazine’s list of great leadership speakers. Karin and her husband and business partner, David Dye, are committed to their philanthropic initiative, Winning Wells – building clean water wells for the people of Cambodia.


  1. David Tumbarello

    I never worked in the type of environment you describe. I worked in Information Technology and I had periodic performance reviews, but there was little or no room for upward growth. I read the situation you describe and this use of talent reviews seems to be a case of metrics gone bad. Some metrics are needed (Have we produced more widgets than last December? Have returns gone down since last quarter? To customer surveys show a positive response to our new marketing strategy?) But other metrics make me shake my head. Talent, Potential, Desire, Willingness to Learn, Attitude — these are human qualities that should never, in my opinion, be reduced to a number or a box. Can I really compare the attitude of candidate A who values production and quality to the Attitude of candidate B who values teamwork and growing others? And what is best for the company? And people are not machines. In other words, I would not want to be reduced to performance scores and checks on a grid when I am thinking, feeling, reacting, and growing on a daily basis.

  2. letsgrowleaders

    Thanks so much David. The grid I describe is the 9 box performance potential grid… where managers rank their people against current performance and perceived potential, and then there’s a collaboration session to identify those with the highest performance and potential to target for accellerated development and on the short list for promotion. I don’t fundamentally disagree with having a structured way to discuss talent. I’ve faciltiated those discussions and have benefited in my career by being in a “good box.”

    The problem as I see it is when such processes morph from being a conversation starter to a rigid system which gives people an excuse to overlook the serious development for 80% of their organization.

    Loved your comment, I’m really curious to hear all sides of this important conversation.

  3. Steve Borek

    Politics can play a major role in who gets promoted or passed over.

    Labels, ugh!

    Management clearly has a voice. As you said, a subjective one.

    What about the voice of the employee?

    Talent reviews, performance reviews, etc. are one sided, lopsided, protecting the behinds of management.

    • letsgrowleaders

      Steve… I see we feel the same way about labels. BTW, I started my 30 days of yoga to help clear my head in the transition… a page out of your book. So far it’s been wonderful. Namaste.

  4. Terri Klass

    I’ve been involved in succession planning and it truly is an imperfect system. It kind of reminds me of tracking in school when our teachers decided our potential early on and we never could get off the same trajectory. The thing is just like kids, adults grow at different levels.

    It is essential for each of us to advocate for ourselves. I love the way that the woman came to you and asked you to put a good word in for her. Amazing and brilliant! That is what we each have to do. Find our mentors and fan clubs and ask them to help us navigate to where we want to go.

    Another great one, Karin!

    • letsgrowleaders

      Terri, That’s a very good analogy. It’s funny, I was fast tracked in math and science through high-school, but not in English. Now I’m a writer who hates math. Go figure.

  5. I agree that these well thought through systems that are developed in a conference room behind closed doors by well meaning people can fail to take into consideration the day-to-day humanity of the work and instead become rigid systems that make little se

    I agree that these well thought through systems that are developed in a conference room behind closed doors by well meaning people can fail to take into consideration the day-to-day humanity of the work and instead become rigid systems that make little sense. It’s the scenarios like you’ve described that should make any good HR pro question and change things that make little sense in the real world of people and work.

    • letsgrowleaders

      Thanks so much for your comment. So agree. Great HR folks ensure the processes and systems are being implemented in ways that develop great talent to achieve amazing outcomes.

  6. Jon King

    Process should never impede progress! I have seen it over and over again, write a process then anyone can do it. If that were the case then Michael Jordan’s talents had nothing to do with his success, give me a break. Obviously you need to be careful on the subjective side as well, but there needs to be a balance, you cannot have everything decided for you by a process, we are humans and not perfect. I also see times where you interview an internal candidate, and that interview is the sole determining factor on whether they move on. We already know these people and their work ethic, presentation skills etc. Our knowledge and history with internal candidates to me trumps all reviews or interviews!

  7. david


    Thanks for sharing this article. I am sure it (or very similar) happens more often than we like to admit. I remember years ago; I regularly got top ratings from supervisors on all categories in performance reviews that resulted in standard (minimal) raises. Although supervisors made ‘strong’ recommendations for promotions; the system was designed for consistent mediocrity, not excellence.

    The most beautiful thing about humans is that we are so diverse, and capable of many, many things – the best of which will never fit into a box (no matter how big the box) or a form. The businesses who actually value employees for the unique qualities they bring have huge advantages compared to those shackled by systems.

    • letsgrowleaders

      David, You state your concerns beautifully. “The businesses who actually value employees for the unique qualities they bring have huge advantages compared to those shackled by systems.” Amen.

  8. LaRae Quy

    Great points, Karin.

    The bigger the corporation, the more difficult it is to appreciate and acknowledge each team member’s individual input…it’s easy to bundle them into groups and manage the group rather than the individual.

    So yes, we need to find advocates for ourselves…brilliant!

    • Karin Hurt

      LaRae, Thank you.. I agree, this is a “big company” syndrome. It’s so important to stay focused on individuals and not do too much “grouping” to make things easy.

  9. Sridhar Laxman

    Thank you for this post. Love your thoughts on talent development. Everything in the world is interconnected and relative. Rigidity goes agains this grain of thought. What’s considered not possible today will be child’s play a few years from now. Shifting our awareness and focus from what someone is lacking currently to what in them could be developed is a more productive approach. Grids and systems cannot do that, humans can and must continue to do so.

  10. Karin Hurt

    Sridhar, your comment is beautifully articulated. So true, we need to stay open to the possibilites in people and the future.

Virtual Leadership Training Programs


Join the Let’s Grow Leaders community for free weekly leadership
insights, tools, and strategies you can use right away!

Where in the World are
Karin & David?

Other Related Posts