Are you involved in your organization’s talent calibration process? Think back to the last session you attended with executives. Did they mostly stay quiet? Perhaps experience taught them that opening up about employees exposes them to career-damaging shoot-from-the-hip criticism. Or they may think it reflects poorly on them as leaders if staff members’ ratings are less than stellar.
Unfortunately, this is a common situation. And too often, it leads to needless bias in talent ratings. Hyperbolic statements like “She’s fantastic!” or “He’s a superstar!” don’t help. Actually, leaders’ talent calibration input can be distorted by many factors — territorial issues, inflated egos, unconscious bias, a lack of exposure to employees, and more.
How can you minimize the impact of these variables? After working with many senior leadership teams who’ve faced these challenges, we’ve developed an approach that removes politics from the equation. It’s a two-step process:
- Capture leadership behaviors on a scorecard.
- Rely on data-based decision-making to drive calibration.
Here’s how it works…
The Behavior Scorecard: Measuring Means and Ends
Some executives are wildly successful, yet they’re notorious for leaving a “trail of bodies” behind them. When the end always justifies the means, it sends a negative message that can seriously damage your organization’s culture.
Before executives calibrate talent, they need a way to manage “ends” and “means” that avoids in-the-moment bias. The answer? Emphasize observable behaviors that reflect your cultural mindset and values. Rather than relying on a standard off-the-shelf competency model, focus on real behaviors that are valued in your organization.
Partnering an in-house team with an external challenger can provide a more balanced perspective. Also, expand your interviews beyond top executives. Perspectives from across the organization help create a realistic and authentic framework. Use focus groups, surveys, and other instruments to help illuminate the nature of leadership at all levels of the organization.
Most companies have already performed much of this work, and the evidence is located in multiple places. Start by analyzing verbatim comments from engagement surveys. Review consultant reports based on employee interviews. Interview people at all levels to understand what is valued currently, and what will help the organization advance. Using this data, you can construct a simple set of leadership priorities, including specific behaviors that can shape assessments and learning opportunities.
Assessments based on these behaviors can be one data point in an executive leadership scorecard. Others might include mobility, diversity goals, engagement survey data, ethical conduct, and participation in employee resource groups. Clearly define measures of leadership behavior that will move your organization in the right direction.
Data-Based Decision-Making: 4 Steps
We suggest a simple 4-step, data-driven decision methodology. We call it the “STAR” process — survey, talent card, assessment, and review. This encourages ongoing conversations about executive talent between peers. It also ensures visibility of organizational talent and breaks down silos to increase mobility, career development and advancement.
Understand a leader’s ‘brand’ before calibration.
Conduct a survey based on the potential and visibility of the “brand” each executive has developed with their peers. To promote a robust discussion, compare each executive’s pre-calibration response with responses from peers. This exercise can be especially helpful for succession planning and development.
2. Talent Card
Show a full view of the leader and their organization.
Use this card to aggregate data about leaders and how they manage their teams. Ideally, it features scorecard data, performance data, risk data, and ethical data. It can also include other relevant organizational data such as spans, layers, diversity, and profit and loss responsibility. To offer a broader perspective, you may also want to add responses from employee surveys.
Weight each item to determine a starting score.
For all talent card data, assign a relative weighting based on importance. This creates a set of “scores” based solely on data. These scores are your calibration starting point. Stack rank the list of leaders by score to identify top, middle, and bottom ranges. A leader’s manager can keep the ranking, or challenge it and add commentary. This balances manager reviews and data-based reviews of executive talent.
Prep for calibration.
A review period gives executives a starting point to calibrate talent based on available data. Differences between ratings reveal where the “heat” of conversations should focus during a calibration meeting. This review cycle encourages dialogue about gaps before a calibration session. Encourage participants to stay curious and check their biases. Also, prompt them to ask questions that will deepen their understanding, rather than to explain or defend.
The Calibration Session
After completing the pre-work, you can focus on the gaps between data and manager review as a starting point for talent discussions. It also creates opportunities to ask useful probative questions about each leader. For example:
- Were appropriate goals established?
- Is this a “how” or “what” issue?
- Are they seen as a “blocker” for other talent?
- How do they interact with peers?
- Are they visible enough?
- Do they need to move on to a new role?
The calibration team does more than simply determine an appropriate rating. It also makes data-driven decisions around talent actions. Next steps and plans for both struggling and high-potential talent can be recorded during the session.
Benefits of a Better Talent Calibration Process
We’ve worked with many senior leadership teams who’ve faced serious talent calibration challenges. When one firm used this process to deepen their talent discussion, it helped them create more effective development plans and design more confident action plans during the calibration session.
This planning process enabled executives to conduct more fruitful conversations with their most talented leaders. And these conversations about strengths, opportunities, and career paths within the company resulted in increased mobility through promotions, retirements, and resignations. As a result, the company made way for new talent, while increasing the visibility and mobility of diverse talent.
By relying on available data and linking evaluations to transparent behaviors, you too can reduce bias and improve the conversation about enterprise executive talent. Ultimately, you can minimize the unwanted influence of politics in discussions and decisions about your organization’s most precious resource — talent.
EDITOR’S NOTE: In developing this article, Jennifer Tice collaborated with Andy Atkins, VP, Executive and Team Performance Practice at BTS, a global consultancy. For more than three decades, BTS has been designing powerful experiences that have a profound and lasting impact on businesses and their people.