Talent Management Gone Wrong

by Carol Anderson, Featured Contributor

ONCE UPON A TIME, there was a young man who was searching for a career.  Like many young people, his early jobs took him on a circuitous route, and ultimately landed him in the field of telecommunications.   He lucked into an entry level position in a Fortune 100 organization and learned the ropes. Twenty years later, he is still at that organization, now managing other eager young people.

Three years agocastle_in_cloud_400_clr_13933, his boss told him, as part of his performance review, that he was a “high potential” and placed him into an organizational leadership development program to prepare him for the time that he would become a Director, and enter the executive ranks.

Building Confidence

This recognition of his “potential” by an organization of this size did amazing things for his confidence.  He gained the courage and the wisdom to suggest ideas for making his unit more efficient, and for being more cost effective.  He was named to task forces that stretched his learning even more, taking him outside his own small area to focus on some of the larger challenges that the organization faced.

His boss, seeing the potential being realized, began to put him in front of executives, making presentation and selling internal solutions.  His confidence continued to grow, and the work of his department continued to get attention for the effective management.  His performance evaluations continued to place him as a “high potential.”

Opportunity Presents Itself

One day, his boss came into his office to tell him that she was leaving the organization, to take her career in a totally different direction.  She had been a real mentor, and quite frankly, his first.  He was shocked and saddened by her announcement, but she followed up with him by telling him that she wanted him to go for her position.

After all of the leadership development, all of the opportunity and all of the visibility, he was ready.  He honestly believed that he could handle the job, and started thinking about how best to position himself with the hiring VP.  He had a great relationship with the hiring VP and mulled over whether to face the VP head on to tell him of his interest in the position.  His team members all asked, “you’re going for the Director job, aren’t you?”  The validation of his peers felt very special to him; even more important than the visibility with executive leadership.  It told him that they found him a credible candidate for the job.

The VP named him the interim Director, to take over when the boss actually left.

On the Friday before his boss left, he had a meeting with the VP and her, and was prepared to share his plan for his leadership of the unit. Before he could begin, the VP told him that they were considering having the Director role outsourced to India, and probably would not fill the role.

It is a month later, he is still the interim director for the department, and has no further word on the fate of the Director job.  Let’s see if I can describe how he feels – dejected, betrayed, angry is a pretty good start.  The reality of the possible outsourcing not only kills the director job, but puts the entire department at risk for being outsourced, possibly including him.

It Was A Good Program

I find this an interesting tale, and it is a true story.  What is so fascinating to me is that, being a designer of Talent Management programs, I was impressed with how they treated this young man.  The communication of “high potential” worked as it was supposed to work – it built confidence and created a commitment to the organization.  The leadership development program was well conceived, and offered both content and rich feedback.  The stretch assignments were textbook, and provided that visibility and breadth that any high potential needs.

Of course, the story doesn’t have an end – yet.  It is possible that the organization has this under control, and that they will redeploy this high potential talent if indeed the job is outsourced.    I hope so.  But after a month, he’s becoming more skeptical.  He is, of course, exploring options.  He really doesn’t want to leave, but he’s struggling with the sense of betrayal more than not becoming a Director.

What does this mean to those designing and implementing talent management programs?  I see a few important implications.

Make sure leaders who identify “high potentials” know what to promise, and that the organization stands behind the promise.  If making the decision to communicate “high potential” status, leaders need to be consistent in that communication.  If a promise is made, uphold it.

Implement the program at the highest level of the organization.  Today’s leaders often have talent that transcends any one function or department, and moving folks across the organization has tremendous benefit.  When looking at talent from the top level, it is possible to see where talent can be redeployed or shifted to provide even more breadth of learning and scope. Today’s software solutions can make this easy.

Integrate talent management into business decisions.  The dollar savings for outsourcing can be compelling, and may be exactly the right business decision, but there are other business decisions – e.g., talent – that are equally important.  Making an outsourcing decision in a vacuum may have unintended consequences elsewhere.

Be able to communicate an end-game.  Don’t leave talent hanging with a “maybe.”

As with any “people program,” there are feelings and emotions at risk.  This is an important consideration for anyone making business decisions.  Feelings like betrayal are difficult to turn around.

Editor’s Note: This Article was originally published on At The Intersection and is republished with permission.


Carol Anderson
Carol Anderson
CAROL is the founder and Principal of Anderson Performance Partners, LLC, a business consultancy focused on bringing together organizational leaders to unite all aspects of the business – CEO, CFO, HR – to build, implement and evaluate a workforce alignment strategy. With over 35 years of executive leadership, she brings a unique lens and proven methodologies to help CEOs demand performance from HR and to develop the capability of HR to deliver business results by aligning the workforce to the strategy. She is the author of Leading an HR Transformation, published by the Society for Human Resource Management in 2018, which provides a practical RoadMap for human resource professionals to lead the process of aligning the workforce to the business strategy, and deliver results, and writes regularly for several business publications.

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  1. This high potential leader wasn’t prepared for this scenario because of the failure of his mentor – not necessarily the program – to help him see more than what is in front of his nose. Understanding the landscape of the business and being prepared to consider multiple options across potential scenarios is a key skill of any leader. His fatal mistake was becoming myopically focused on the one director job in an organization AS IT IS TODAY. He just wanted to take his director’s former seat, and when he couldn’t due to a potential change in strategic direction, he felt betrayed. Nonsense. Outsourcing decisions don’t come out of the blue. If he truly exhibited leadership potential, he should have known the various directions in which the organization could go (or at least anticipated them), and then he would have been well positioned to share his vision associated with each of those scenarios. That sounds like a value-added conversation to have with his out-going director and VP.

    • Michael,
      excellent devil’s advocate! Thanks for your perspective. I agree
      that a savvy business up-and-comer should be wise to the ways of the
      organization. My experience, in over 30 years of executive human
      resources, is that they usually aren’t. What I have found, particularly
      in “support” functions, is that the entire silo thinks only about their
      particular silo, rather than across the organization. One of the responsibilities of a solid talent
      management process (IMHO) is deliberately crossing over the silos, making sure
      leaders understand what “career” really means, and giving them the competence
      to develop their high potentials for the greater good of the

    • Spot on Michael. Except I would blame high potential just as much as the mentor. Seems to me that he is very self-centered. Betrayed? If anything he is betraying his company and the people he is managing. He should feel lucky that he is having the chance to be interim director – good for his resume. The only smart one seems to be the mentor – getting out of Dodge before outsourcing occurred. Outsourcing had probably been in the cards for some time.