Talent Reviews

Why Talent Reviews of Subject Matter Experts are Awkward (and what to do about it)

For many organisations, Talent Review time is busy but exciting. It’s about identifying top talent, and those with potential to make a larger contribution to the organisation. And then shaping a development journey for them.


But there is a problem. Technical subject matter experts (SMEs) are difficult to fit into this review system. Many organisations use the Nine Bix Talent grid, and this is poorly equipped to cater for SMEs. Indeed, many Nine Box Grids have a box specifically for SMEs – that positions them as high performance but low potential. Low potential! Just think about that.


SMEs are increasingly important to the organisation, and difficult and costly to replace. They often reside in mission critical roles. But somehow our talent systems aren’t calibrated to talk about potential in SMEs (because potential, in most organisations, is defined as the potential to lead people, not a role the talent teams perceive SMEs to be able to do.


This makes annual review and development conversations with SMEs usually very awkward. Firstly, no one wants to explain to the SMEs which box they are in. (At HFL we show SMEs the nine box grid, and which box they are in, and not surprisingly, they get very cranky. With their managers. With the talent team. You’ve been warned.)


Typically, talent conversations with SMEs are awkward for three reasons:

  1. Development needs are often only seen by both parties (the SME and their manager) through a technical expertise lens.
  2. There is no development available to SMEs that is directly relevant to helping them become a more effective expert (inter-personal skills, stakeholder management, enhanced consulting skills) available to them internally (or, until recently, externally).
  3. There are no internal frameworks that underpin and help inform a meaningful conversation about “talent” and “performance” between an SME and their manager (in the way a leadership development framework underpins people leadership talent conversations). And there were none externally either, until recently. This is really unhelpful for genuine managers and their SMEs trying to have meaningful conversations, but having no foundational structure around which to have them.


“We have known for some time we need to have a development path for our experts,” one People & Culture Director told me at a recent lunch, “but we’ve simply not known what to do with them.” The solution very often comes down to – because there is nothing else – more technical development.


The Awkward Gap

The truth is that more technical development is not the development that most SMEs need. We know this because a recent piece of research conducted into the development needs of over 140 SMEs from a wide variety of expert domains (IT, HR, Risk, Change, Finance, Legal) across 12 participating companies. You can request a copy of the research here.


The survey found that according to feedback from a broad range of stakeholders (1700 respondents in total), the most common development needs of SME’s are:

  • Stakeholder Management – the ability to build open, productive stakeholder relationships across a variety of stakeholder groups;
  • Personal Brand – the ability to present as a trusted, approachable advisor that can understand their technical domain and the business in equal measures;
  • Business Value-Add – the ability to add value to the business via the shaping of technical solutions;


Developing further technical knowledge in SMEs does not address either of these three skills. And let’s be clear, before we simply tick these off as “soft skills”, they actually are the hardest skills for SMEs to develop.


In lunches attended by more than 50 organisations during late June and July, senior shared services executives agreed that a key solution that they needed to develop was to build (or adopt) a capability framework for SMEs (such as this one), and then build development solutions that addressed these broader technical skills sets (such as this one).


HFL provides a wide range of consulting services in this area. Specifically, we can make those talent conversations between highly valued SMEs and their managers be effective and meaningful immediately. Please contact one of our team to start an obligation free discussion.


Further reading: you might enjoy the following …


The Geek Gap, and how to fix it


Their own words: technical experts describe their K-Leader experience





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