Top-Down and Bottom-Up Talent Management

Conditions are good to broaden inputs into how the talent process unfolds across levels of any organization.

Periodic talent reviews are a core component of leadership succession planning in most mature organizations today and a critical role for any human resources function. While rigorous talent assessment tools are available, they can be time consuming to deploy. As such, only a small percentage of available talent in an organization, as little as the top 1 percent or less, typically is considered.

Once the talent review process is complete, attention allocated to high-potential development planning is similarly resource-constrained. Therefore, both the assessment and development phases can be difficult to scale. These simple facts require any talent management function to be extremely judicious in how they allocate their time, even when cultivating their very top talent.

While traditional, top-down talent management processes will always have a place, something of a democratization of talent development resources is emerging. First, there are many free or low-cost content providers, such as Khan Academy and Coursera. Second, there are new learning platforms, such as Degreed and Pathgather, which create a social learning environment that takes at least some of the heavy lifting out of HR’s hands. Together these resources provide an opportunity for more of a bottom-up approach to talent development, which can reach a much broader cross-section of employees at scale.

We challenge the traditional notion that there is only one succession pool and propose that companies would be wise to consider how to foster multiple succession pools driven from both the top and the bottom of the organization. While some pools may remain actively managed, others may be activated by more passive support of the talent and learning functions.

In addition, it is important to evaluate the typical inputs or qualifications for inclusion in a talent pool and whether they, too, should be broadened as learning and development moves from a digital to an intelligent age.

Today: A Top-Down, Center-Driven Approach

To begin, it is helpful to take a look at how many organizations currently deploy talent reviews in a traditional, top-down manner. According to “The Pearls and Perils of Identifying Potential” by Rob Silzer and Allan H. Church, robust models of talent and potential emphasize a broad array of factors, including cognitive complexity, personality, motivation, leadership, technical skills and, of course, performance.

Performance is often given priority. In most nine-box grids, current performance retains its own dimension separate from the more forward-looking potential. An initial risk here is overemphasizing current performance while unintentionally de-emphasizing the complexity of factors that contribute to long-term potential.

Another risk of a “closed-door” approach to talent reviews is they become a more subjective debate of candidates. As such, any number of biases may creep into the conversation. In many cases, without direct contact to individuals under review, one person’s point of view may dominate the conversation. Executives may come to rely on one individual’s read of a reputation, which, in turn, is socialized across the top of the organization. In short, absent more objective and sufficient data about performance and potential, top-down performance reviews can easily become politicized.

Another point to consider is that talent assessment tends to be one-sided toward an organization’s assessment of potential. A great deal of time and effort go into assessing and then calibrating senior management’s point of view regarding their top talent without much or any input from the employees being reviewed. Overlooking an employee’s input earlier in the process can lead to misreading their interest and personal readiness to move into a new level or role in the organization.

After completing the arduous annual talent review process at one of our companies, we were surprised to find, during development coaching sessions, that many of the hand-picked successors for executive roles were not actually interested in being succession candidates. While for some the timing was not right, others were quite happy in their current roles and did not aspire to the next level and additional commitments required.

With this in mind, if we were to call out another dimension to emphasize in discussion during talent reviews, why not an employee’s motivation or aspiration? Aspiration is included in the Corporate Executive Board’s HiPo model along with engagement and ability. The term “motivation” is used to describe a similar concept by Silzer and Church; they include characteristics such as drive, energy and career ambition. Another popular model, detailed in “Employability and Career Success: Bridging the Gap Between Theory and Reality,” is RAW, which states that high-potential talent are more rewarding to work with, more able and more willing to work hard. The latter accounts for ambition and achievement motivation.

Sourcing Talent from Employees, Too

We recommend not only seeking input from top management but also from target employees. Unlike many of the other dimensions of talent, one’s motivation can be difficult to judge from the outside. It also seems rather limited not to include more actively the targets of the talent assessment in the assessment itself.

We also suggest that the assessment of aspiration be more nuanced than a binary all-in or out. While some employees may be ready to prioritize work over other aspects of their lives, others may be committed to realizing their potential but over a longer timeframe.

There are multiple potential benefits resulting from accommodating phases in professional and personal lives. A more flexible consideration of employee aspiration could enhance the diversity of talent pools, which might otherwise exclude segments of a workforce that are not willing to solely prioritize work above all else. For example, a parent of young children may have all the potential in the world but not be prepared to move across the globe for the next stretch assignment. However, that might change once their children reach a certain age.

Instead of a binary all-in/out mentality to aspiration, envision a more continuous scale. Some may find themselves in the fast lane, committed to moving quickly and doing whatever it takes. Others may be positioned to move more slowly or even exit for a period of time.

In addition to development speed, consider different types of development experiences. For example, does an employee need more global experience to prepare for a broader role in the future? What does that look like for someone moving slow versus fast? Perhaps for a slower-moving employee, it means staying in their current geography but participating in a global project. Perhaps for an employee on a faster track, it means relocating to a new region immediately. In both cases, meaningful development is taking place.

Finally, if reports of decreasing engagement are on point, perhaps involving top talent in the succession and assessment process at earlier stages could lead to greater engagement and commitment to the organizations that are looking to them as future leaders.

To complement the traditional top-down method to talent management, there may be an opportunity emerging for a bottom-up approach. This would be a more self-determined and personalized development path. For example, an employee could self-nominate or select a succession path without any particular organizational resistance or hurdles. Of course, there would be no guarantees for a new role or promotion, but why not equip and empower employees to shape their own development?

The good news is that with learning technology platforms, like Degreed and other content libraries, there could be an option for anyone to put themselves on an accelerated development path with less organizational involvement than is required in top-down talent management. Not only could individual employees self-select a level of aspiration, but they could begin pursuing it right away without requiring approval from management.

Additionally, if organizations identified experience profiles for various positions, employees would have a list of knowledge, skills and experiences that could be tied to their development as successors for those roles. These profiles could apply to a current functional path or apply across related functions where common skills and experiences may open additional paths to promotion within an organization. Unlike the top-down approach, this could also be scalable.

Conditions Are Ideal for Complementary Approaches

The skeptics among us may be asking how this could possibly work when most everyone may view themselves as the next best thing and self-nominate. Here, the emerging trends in social learning could be put to practical application.

For example, instead of looking only at senior management to define the talent pool, a more progressive organization could look at peer and direct report ratings against organization values and leadership behaviors to tier resources available to top talent. This would broaden the sources of input used to determine talent pool membership and help to prioritize how resources are allocated across the organization. In addition, successful completion of various online training resources could be another qualifier to earn preferred development resources.

In summary, we are not proposing that the traditional top-down talent management process goes away. While it may not be perfect, it has an important role to play to ensure that any organization is considering future leadership for critical roles. However, we believe the conditions are good to broaden the inputs into how the talent process unfolds across levels of any organization.

Empowered by the abundance of online content and the sophisticated learning platforms on which they sit, there is potential for a simultaneous bottom-up approach to talent management whereby the employees with the aspiration required to succeed at any level can carve out their own development paths. While the top-down approach will always apply to a select few, the bottom-up model can be scaled to meet the demands of digital natives rising through the ranks.

Fred Delmhorst is vice president of global organization & leadership development at Time Warner Inc. Jeffrey Orlando is managing director and chief learning officer of leader development & performance at Deloitte Services LP. They can be reached at