Talent at the Margins
Once a working group – a function, department or organization – reaches reasonable scale, we naturally tend to put people into buckets when conducting performance evaluations.
Who are the high performers?
Who are the solid, reliable players?
Who are the folks performing below average?
If we’ve done the groundwork – which means collecting sufficient data on each individual and putting in the diligence to appropriately and objectively compare the data across the appropriate cohorts – placing most people into the relevant buckets is reasonably straightforward.
(Think about your own team or company, and I’ll bet you can quickly identify who the high performers are (bucket 1) or those who aren’t quite at that level but are consistent, and dependable (bucket 2). It’s probably also clear who falls into bucket 3.)
Of course, the fact that this is reasonably straightforward to do, doesn’t mean it doesn’t require effort. No doubt, this bucketing involves hard work. But the ‘obvious bucketing’ isn’t where the hardest work occurs.
The real hard work is determining what happens to those at the margins. Those who sit at the cusp of adjacent buckets.
If you sit at the bottom of bucket 1 or the top of bucket 2, or more concerning, if you sit at the margins of buckets 2 and 3.
This is where the diligence really comes in. And justifiably so. Because it’s not just about recognition, compensation or promotion, it’s about career development, trajectories and personal momentum. It’s about preserving, nurturing, saving the talent that your organization needs to prosper in the long term.
Not just those that sit in the obvious pools or buckets. But those that, today, sit at the margins but could be the stars of tomorrow.
So it’s important to put in the effort.
To look at the data comprehensively, and be as objective as possible.
To have as many viewpoints and perspectives as possible (particularly in non-quantifiable roles).
To not let politics play a role.
To not let emerging strategy dictate objective current performance evaluations (those are two separate considerations).
To not let the seniority of the reviewer sway the decision (I’ve seen that happen.)
To not let prior period historical performance color the current narrative (I'm sure we’ve all seen that happen).
To, fundamentally, have faith in individuals and their ability to rise above and deliver.
At the end of the day, it’s not just about getting things right for the organization. It’s about being fair to the individual and his or her potential.
The best organizations where I’ve seen this practiced spend a lot of time at the ‘margins’.
Because it’s the right thing to do.
And – ultimately – because you need to be able to look the person in the eye and explain it to them.