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Identifying talent

The Baltimore Sun

Jack Welch, a chief executive officer who knew how to win, spent much of his time developing talent when he was leading General Electric. "We build great people who then build great products and services," he writes in his book, Jack - Straight From the Gut.

For any organization, identifying high potential talent is critical.

Generally, there are two groups of talent in a company, says Tom Pitts, a consultant for Right Management's Florida and Caribbean division. There are high-performing experts who are knowledgeable about a particular area. There also are "agile learners" who are able to handle dissimilar jobs.

An example of the latter was Pitts' former boss, Louis V. Gerstner Jr., who headed International Business Machines Corp.

Gerstner was named IBM's chief executive, even though he didn't know anything about technology. But he knew how to run a company and is credited with IBM's turnaround.

Human resources executives indicate they have an insufficient pipeline of high-potential employees to fill strategic management roles, according to an article by Douglas A. Ready and Jay A. Conger in the June issue of Harvard Business Review.

The problem, the authors say, is "those practices may have fallen out of sync with what the company needs to grow or expand into new markets."

There are plenty of tools companies use to identify their high-potential employees. Welch used a grading system of sorts.

"A" players at GE were "people filled with passion, committed to make things happen and open to ideas," Welch wrote in his book. "B" employees were the operational people who needed guidance to become "As." And "Cs" were those who didn't get the job done.

Top companies develop talent and reap the benefits: Ten of the 11 Good to Great CEOs were from inside their companies, Pitts points out.

Good to Great is business expert Jim Collins' book on how good firms such as Walgreen Co., the Gillette Co. and Kimberly-Clark Corp. became great companies.

At IBM, Gerstner eventually replaced himself with someone from inside the company, Samuel J. Palmisano, who had been at the firm 30 years.

Pitts says identifying a high performer is "an art form." At Office Depot several years ago, the company found common personality traits among its high performers at its calling center and was better able to hire for the center after identifying those traits, he recalls.

But do you tell the high potentials that you've identified them as such? Pitts says organizations don't want to spur speculation, so there are underlying concerns.

Managers need to be trained in how to communicate about succession planning, to let employees know where they stand and how they can develop.

"One of the most important things is context. Build a context to be better at their chosen profession, rather than make the context about being promoted or who ranks where," Pitts says.

But if the process is done right, Pitts says, "it forces a look at every single person. ... It can have the wonderful effect of letting everybody know they're important, of really doing something to help people be better at what they do. That can produce a tremendous return."

Marcia Heroux Pounds writes for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

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