Transparency in Succession Planning: To Tell or Not To Tell?

“To tell or not to tell”?, now THAT is the question when it comes to succession planning and high potential programs.

I recently attended a talent management networking meeting hosting by PDI Ninth House. It was well attended, with over 100 participants, all responsible for some aspect of talent management. The two presenters had a packed agenda with over 50 slides to get through.

While it was all good and interesting, the part that sparked the most questions and discussions was the section on “transparency”.

At one point, participants were asked to raise their hands if their high potential programs were:

1. Not transparent;

2. Somewhat transparent; or

3. Fully transparent

There were not many hands in the air for “fully transparent”. PDI (and Bersin) strongly suggests that there should be. You can answer the question for your organization in the poll at the end of this post.

According to research conducted by the Center for Creative Research (CCL), 77% of high-potential leaders surveyed reported that being formally identified was highly important to them.

Furthermore, knowing one’s status as a high potential has a significant impact on retention. Of those formally identified, only 14% were currently seeking other employment compared to 33% who were not formally informed by their organizations.

The data matches my own experience in running high potential programs and as being tapped on the shoulder as a high potential.

So – is that data compelling enough for those of you that are “in the know” to pull back the curtains on your high potential program?

Before you go out and publish those lists on your company website, there’s another part of “full transparency” that you’re going to have to deal with: what about having to tell that former high potential that they are no longer on the super-secret list? Arrrgh, now that’s the real reason why most organizations don’t go all the way with transparency. Managers – and HR – hate having to have those tough discussions.

You might even argue that for every hipo you retain by telling, you lose another former hipo (but still a damn good performer) by telling them they’re no longer on the list.

To address this, PDI recommends being clear upfront as to what it means to be a high potential. It’s not a life-time membership; it’s only a point-in-time designation.

Communicate the criteria for selection to everyone, what it means and what it doesn’t. Status is re-evaluated every year, and you can drop off the list due to changes in organizational plans and talent needs, changes in the high potential criteria, and competition for entry into the pool.

Sure, they’re still going to be disappointed, but having these conversations about expectations upfront will help soften the blow.

I mostly agree with PDI’s recommendations. In fact, I’ve written on this topic before and given my own 2 cents on hipo notification guidelines with “High Potential Notification Guidelines: Not Too Heavy, Not Too Light”.

With all due respect, the only part I may disagree with PDI is regarding the concept of telling a high potential that they are in “a program” (or on a list), or not in a program or on a list. To me, that sounds a little on the  “too heavy” side.

Why not just have candid discussions about how the person’s performance and potential is perceived, and what the options are for development given their status? This should be a regular (at least yearly) two-way discussion. With regular and candid feedback, there should be no surprises and each individual gets development that’s appropriate for their unique development needs.

Of course, that’s in a perfect world where managers have regular discussions with employees about their performance and development….. Before we turn blue holding our breath waiting for that to happen, perhaps organizations do need to implement a more formal notification process?

What do you think? Should high potentials be told that they are high potentials? If so, should they be told if they are no longer high potential?

Take the poll below, and/or leave a comment: