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How to spot talent

Karen Higginbottom

The Oscars, a ceremony which celebrates star potential has been and gone but how good are organisations at recognising the dazzling array of talent within their own organisations? Karen Higginbottom investigates

Not good at all, according to research from people management practice Penna which found that more than two-thirds of businesses do nothing to recognise potential within their own organisation. The survey of 1000 employees and 1000 managers across the UK revealed that despite 81% of managers regarding developing potential as fairly important; a third of managers felt they lacked senior management support in identifying employee potential. Why isn’t talent spotting a top priority in organisations and what can managers do to improve their ability to spot star performers in their organisation?

Only 13% of employees described their organisation as doing a lot to recognise potential, according to the Penna survey. Even more depressing was that when potential was recognised within an organisation, only 23% of employees said there had been any investment in developing their skills. “It’s time that organisations recognised the importance of spotting potential and did something about it. By failing to do so they are jeopardising their greatest asset-their talent. Not only are they missing out on the opportunity to engage their most valuable employees, they also risk wasting existing talent at a time when it’s in short supply,” remarked Penny De Valk, managing director of Penna Talent Practice. 

A quarter of managers said it wasn’t considered a business priority even though the vast majority acknowledged that developing potential was fairly important, according to the Penna research. “Senior executives are saying their talent pipeline isn’t full enough but a lot of it is that their talent practices aren’t fit for purpose,” commented De Valk.  “One of the biggest opportunities is to re-skill managers to have conversations with their people about their potential. It’s also about giving people stretch assignments.”

While half of managers (50%) recognised that failing to do so can lead to staff disengagement, high staff turnover and recruitment costs (43%) as well as decreased productivity (34%). However, nearly a third of managers (31%) feel they lack senior management support in identifying employee potential, a quarter say it isn’t considered a business priority (25%), and there isn’t the right development programmes in place – so there isn’t any value in identifying it in the first place (24%).  

Becky Mossman, HR director, global HR business partners at HireRight believes that talent spotting in organisations is low priority in organisations due to a combination of time and cost pressures. “For many businesses, the immediate need to fil vacancies as quickly as possible means they cannot spare the time to wait and find the perfect person for each and every role. Long-term potential often takes a back seat. This is a fundamental issue that too frequently has a negative impact further down the line as employees choose to move around more often, making it extremely difficult to even succession plan.” 

Penna’s research also revealed that many organisations don’t even have the basics in place. Nearly a third (30%) of managers admit that their organisation has no single definition of what potential actually is and no real way of assessing it - as many as 79% of managers said that they didn’t have proper assessment processes or tools in place to spot potential. “We’ve got people sitting in roles who don’t know how to demonstrate potential,” said De Valk. “Managers need to talk to individuals about the behaviours they need to see demonstrated. For example, commercial understanding and an ability to lead teams. The manager and individual employee need to have the conversation about how they demonstrate that potential. Managers mustn’t be afraid of career conversations.” The lack of assessment tools to spot potential is also problematic, added De Valk. “There are a lot of assessment tools out there but we’ve become more nuanced in what we want. Organisations don’t just want technical skills but they want personal resilience, learning agility and to assess an individual’s character. Another challenge is that organisations need a definition of potential. Managers need a clear definition of potential. What are the things that someone who wants to demonstrate their potential needs to be aware of? There is an element of training managers and making sure that managers aren’t promoting people who look like them.”

One of the key issues for organisations is how they spot talented people early on in their career, remarked Nick Holley, co-director of the centre for HR Excellence at  Henley Business School. “Judgement and perspective are what define senior leaders and the best way to develop those qualities are putting them in roles which stretch them.”

Many organisations use assessment centres to assess an individual’s potential, added Holley. “The problem with assessment centres is that you immediately lose 50% of your potential because you’re looking at extroverts. Being an introvert doesn’t mean you’re not a great leader.”

Also, it seems that organisations are looking in the wrong place for potential, or certainly not in enough places; 25 – 34 year olds appear to be the focus of attention for 62% of managers, which means that large swathes of today’s four-generation workforce are being overlooked.


  • Sue Davis

    I really don't agree with Nick Holley's comment: 

    "The problem with assessment centres is that you immediately lose 50% of your potential because you’re looking at extroverts"

    I think that is an example of a badly designed assessment centre if that is his findings.  We've seen lots of success for our clients, both introverts and extroverts. Activities should be designed free from such bias, to give everyone an equal opportunity. Personality profiling can sit alongside but is only one part of the picture.

    Making sure the candidate knows what to expect, is put at ease quickly on the day and given the best opportunity to showcase their competence can make a difference to how they perform on the day, but success in our book doesn’t rely on being an extrovert.

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