Protecting Meritocracy: The Challenges Of Performance And Talent Management

Originally published in Human Capital Online as Deriving the Success Factors by Radhika Subramanian and Prof. P. Vijayakumar in May 2014

The talent management context

Priyanka is a recruiter who works with Magica, an FMCG in the personal care retail space. Magica is an organization with evolved HR practices and in the past two years of working with the company, Priyanka has found that the latest in HR practices and theory is always discussed within this organization. Based on the pre-placement presentation by the company at her college and the general perceptions amongst friends and family, Priyanka considered Magica to be a good choice for an HR career.

This is her third year at Magica and as part of her career growth plan, Priyanka as been moved to a role in talent management and development from recruitment. The earlier senior HR manager who was managing that role recently moved to another organization and Priyanka has been given this stint as a stretch opportunity to prove herself. She now leads a team of three junior manager/ admin staff who front-end talent management for the 1250 senior management staff across all India locations. Occasionally, they also need to step into overseeing the Sri Lanka office. She is yet to discover the extent of the roles and responsibilities.

The talent management cycle typically begins around year-end time with the performance review cycle, making October to January the most hectic months of the year. Starting October, meetings with business heads and employees begin to make them aware of the process and any changes, update them on the calendar, ensure headcount information is up-to-date and nobody is missed out. By end of November, leaders typical would submit their recommendations on the nine-box that was used to categorize people based on performance and potential.

Basic challenges with talent management

Priyanka was given an overview by the HR Vice President in a meeting to walk her through the basics before she started. In the context of past problems and solutions in talent management, he mentioned the following key points that she needed to be aware of:

  • The headcount data not being updated for attrition and neither business nor HR taking ownership for correcting it. As a result, there would be reminders and follow-ups being done for employees who weren’t in the system till someone dug into the data and found out that the reason for reminders was ex-employees and finally manually stop the automatic triggers
  • The recommendations not being submitted on time by business heads or the CXO levels. These were senior people and it became difficult for Priyanka’s team to chase them down and get things done. A meeting with them also typically had to go through their assistants and getting time on the calendars in the last quarter of the year, when they were focused more on meeting their sales targets was a nightmare
  • Always having a positive skew in the distribution. Practically everyone wanted to claim their employee was high-performance and/or high-potential, over-populating the top of the box and making the bottom unrealistically light. An annual increase in sales and profit that Magica had made in practically every business in the last couple of years made it very easy for these business heads to justify such recommendations with performance numbers

The team had worked very hard for the last three cycles to fix these items for the long term. They had worked with the HR MIS team to ensure the headcount reports were in place, created points of contact in each business who conducted a sanity check on the reports and confirmed acceptance before the process began. They had also looped in some key business leaders and the head of HR as sponsors for the talent management process making them drive the timelines and seriousness in their communications in addition to increasing face-time for the talent team throughout the year, instead of just during calibration time.

A series of eLearning modules, training programs, executive debriefs and talent update calls drove the culture of a normal distribution and holding back from unnecessary positive skews. Things were finally becoming stable and the process settling down.

On hearing these inputs from the HR VP, Priyanka felt fairly confident of the function and her role in it. Based on all her theory fresh from her MBA, she decided that this year, she and her new team were going to turn their attention towards calibration discussions.

Come calibration time, every business leader worth his salt would be pitching his direct report for the highest positioning in the talent matrix, while every other leader in the room would be waiting for him to make one mistake on which they could pounce like hungry wolves and push their candidate forward instead.

The first meeting of the season was cosmetics, Priyanka’s erstwhile business as a recruiter. She breathed easy – at least she knew the people well. “This should be cake walk”, she thought.

The talent management reality

There were just nine people to be discussed: Two from anti-ageing, represented by Mayuri, a strong lady of aggressive reputation, and four from deodorants, spoken for by Kiran, a competitive, argumentative business head whose business had taught him that the only way to move ahead was to kill your competition. Then there were the last three from Sashank’s team in the nail and lip color business that under Sashank’s leadership was more artistic in sensibility than driven by the dog-eat-dog madness of the rest of the organization.

Susheel, the head of cosmetics began the meeting with a sense of urgency. “Thank you all for being here. We have nine people to discuss and just about two hours to do it. I recommend we all share our candidate’s profiles briefly first, followed by a longer discussion on the merits and demerits of each recommendation”

Priyanka, relieved that Susheel had spoken like a true sponsor of the talent initiative, added, “We need to take our decisions carefully and understand that the decisions we make will impact the career growth opportunities of these individuals. I would like your confirmation that each of us has read the brief on the principles of a talent discussion”. Everyone nodded in agreement. Kiran jumped in to start as expected.

Kiran: “So let me start by talking about my team. I have Ravi and Sreekanth whom I am recommending for the highest box – high performance, high potential. They have both done a fantastic job in marketing their respective products. Ravi came up with the latest branding strategy for Vio, the unisex fragrance which has captured the market’s imagination. Our sales have exceeded our projections in the first three months of launch by 15%. Sreekanth on the other hand, had been working on our oldest product Fiora for women and has achieved outstanding results…”

Mayuri: “If I were to call anyone outstanding it would be Suri. He is one of the youngest members in the team and has demonstrated a great understanding of customer psyche in anti-ageing. Not only has he grown the female customer segment, he has also been able to extend the user-base of YouNG to the male population. This has opened doors for us to launch a men’s product, the proposal for which has already been submitted to the R&D department. YouNG for men will be our next big revenue generator and Suri is the brains behind that.”

Priyanka: “Sashank, what about your team? Do you want to talk about your recommendations?”

Shashank: “I guess I do. All three of them, Deepti, Vivek and Vikas are sheer creative brilliance. They understand the importance of the right shade and know how to sell – whether they are selling complements or contrasts. They direct the R&D team towards what is needed in the market, have pitched out products on the ramp and off as well. I could not have dreamt up a better team.”

Mayuri: “Sashank, what have they done that is extraordinary? What you are saying is that they do they jobs well. Isn’t that what is expected of our teams anyway? And Deepti is going to be away on maternity soon – she looks like she is due for delivery anytime now and she will definitely not be available for at least 6 months after that.”

Priyanka: “Mayuri, that cannot be the basis to evaluate her performance or potential…”

Mayuri: “Why not? What is the point in using a spot for her this year? She will not be there for any initiatives we offer to our identified talent.”

Sashank: “Seriously, Deepti has passed out of Tier I with an MBA in Marketing. People like Suri and Ravi whom we are discussing in this room hail from some no-name institutes and nor do they have great FMCG backgrounds behind them. Pedigree is definitely more important a consideration than maternity breaks.”

Priyanka: “I think we are all barking up the wrong tree here. Please let us take a step back and consider facts…”

Kiran: “I completely agree with Priyanka. Look, there are several things we need to consider here. For example, I don’t know Vivek or Suri very well but I can tell you from my experience working with Vikas before that he clearly has an attitude problem. Does anybody think we can have somebody with a bad attitude identified as talent in this company? I would definitely rate a Sreekanth, a hard worker and consistent performer who can be relied on far higher in the matrix than someone with attitude issues.”

Priyanka: “Kiran, that is really not what I meant when I said consider facts. A variety of things are important – such as do we want to value consistent performance over outstanding performance or what is our definition of attitude problems or how far back you worked with anyone to use that input…”

Sashank; “Bull’s eye, Priyanka. Exactly my point. You worked with Vikas more than two years ago. People change over time. And two years is two performance cycles ago. That input doesn’t even count. You are just biasing this group here to undermine my candidate. Vikas is an excellent performer. Much stronger than an average one like Suri.”

Mayuri: “Enough about performance. What about potential? You may claim your candidates have done well. Mine have spark. They can grow to great heights in this company. I have spoken about Suri already, but consider Rahman. He may not have done as well as Suri this year, but can well be my successor.”

Kiran: “So you want your second best performer to be your successor? Does that indicate what you think of yourself? I would want the best performer to be the person that succeeds me. No one else will do.”

Priyanka: “Kiran, I think the point is who can fulfill the roles and responsibilities the best. Somebody may be the best performer in their current role but not necessarily do the same at the next level.”

Kiran: “Oh please, Priyanka. You can keep your HR theory to yourself. You are telling me someone who is not even the best at doing his current role will make a better manager? What kind of a role model will he be? What credibility will he carry in the team?”

Does your talent management process protect your meritocracy?

Priyanka’s head was spinning. She had heard comments about maternity breaks, institution and previous employer pedigree, potential being assessed based on performance, and attitude complaints in the last 90 minutes.

Is this how all calibration meetings were going to be? More importantly, is this how all calibration meetings had been over the past years? How come nobody had highlighted some of these issues? Did they believe this was the right way to run a meeting? What should she do?

Performance vs. Potential, Young vs. Old, Tenured vs. Fresher, Man vs. Woman, Maternity vs. Non-Maternity, Premiere vs. Non-Premiere Institute – is this how your talent management discussions sound? If yes, it’s time to rethink your strategies to protect your meritocracy

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