Catch and Release – The risk of big fish in small ponds

How assessment and development enhances talent retention

How often do we hear about companies boasting about only employing the brightest and best people to work for them.  “Only people who score on the 90th percentile are good enough to work for us”, is a line that is often used.  “Even our Personal Assistants have MBA’s” is another line. Such companies often base their views on assessment results, but the results are often misapplied by inexperienced consultants. This effects the talent value chain throughout the entire employee life cycle, and threatens the ROI of development.

In our view, a strategy that employs only the best and brightest is inherently flawed.  This is due to organizational reality: organizations search for standardization and convergence, while talent is inherently divergent. Competent and talented individuals have an inherent need to feel challenged and in order for that to happen, there needs to be certain tasks in their roles that they have yet to master. Individuals may stay with the company for a short while, but once the company branding from Induction has faded, they will soon feel the need to move on and the company’s newest bright star will leave to find a fresh challenge.

In our view it is the role of responsible consultants to advise their clients in this regard – and it can only be done if the consultant has a good understanding of the exact requirements of the job and the ability to match the individual to these.  This sounds obvious, but consultants will often fall into the trap of simply supporting the application of the brightest applicants. Inexperienced consultants will be quick to point out talent deficits in individuals, but will often ignore the risks talent surplus, i.e. the individual is simply too talented to be satisfied in the role. This should not be confused with being over-qualified, which is a function of experience rather than capacity, potential and responsiveness. To appoint a highly strategic individual with the ability to think across different systems in a role that only requires maintenance of an existing process will not enable that person to function optimally. The result is that the bright star will under-perform and managers may even question the validity of the assessment results.

In order for companies to maximize the results from tools such as psychometric tests and assessment centres, assessments should not be done in isolation.  The HR Manager and consultant must understand what the real requirements of the job are and, more importantly, ensure that whoever is appointed is able to fulfill the majority of the responsibilities, whilst allowing 15 – 20 % of the responsibilities to “stretch” and challenge the employee.  The end result is that the truly bright and talented individual fails to perform.

Companies often respond to underperforming talent by ‘sending them on training’. This is the organizational equivalent of getting a haircut to fix your car – a useful activity with some benefits, but don’t expect to fix the real problem. If the problem is a lack of challenge, then training will have short-term results at best. Staff will soon revert to old habits if the boredom persists.

The ideal learning solution for talent is one that allows for the divergence of thought and approach that typifies talented individuals. Learning should provoke and challenge, just as work should, in order to obtain the best ROI from development. Our experience further suggests that talented individuals prefer exposure to higher level work, due to the systemic nature of such work. Talented staff enjoy the challenge of studying high level connection and integration and seeking out new connections. Such is the market need for this type of learning, that we have developed a programme known as Systemic Leadership Learning Theory.

Talent selection and development is not about finding the brightest – all ponds have some conspicuously big fish, but the survival of the pond depends on many other factors. These factors can be found and harnessed through the use making use of assessments in a responsible manner that takes into account all the dynamics at play, rather than merely trying to appoint the brightest individual you can find.




Morne Mostert is an international leadership specialist. He is the founder of Leadership Options and the creator of SLL Theory.

Wea Van Heerden is the co-founder of The Assessment Toolbox.