If I gave you 30 seconds to name your company’s 10 top-performing employees — the ones that helped carry your company through the recession and the ones you’ll rely upon to grow the organization for years to come — could you do it?

If not, you’re not alone — unfortunately. A new survey from AMA Enterprise reveals that more than one-quarter of large organizations make virtually no attempt to identify high-potential employees.

Among the poll’s 500 respondents, 27% say their organization makes minimal or no effort to identify high-performing contributors, while 48% characterized their endeavors as “adequate.” Just one in five (21%) called their organization’s program to spot future leaders  “extensive.”

I shook my head in exasperation and disbelief at these findings.  Why, at a time when many companies are in a fight to keep employees at all, would leaders not put a higher premium on identifying and keeping the best employees they’ve got?

I know there are about four people available for every open position these days, but it doesn’t sound like a wise talent management strategy to let top performers’ contributions go unacknowledged — or worse, unnoticed completely — just because there are plenty of fish in the sea, so to speak.  Those applicants waiting in the wings may not have the skills and abilities — and certainly not the knowledge of your organization — that your top performers do.

It’s like taking a chance on hiring Macgruber when you have a member of Seal Team 6 already on staff.

Sandi Edwards, SVP for AMA Enterprise, a specialized division of American Management Association, makes this point much more diplomatically: “At a time when organizations are struggling to build their leadership pipeline, retain top performers and plan for management succession, it’s ironic that so many are ineffective at the first step, which is to find the most promising employees. The most striking finding, in my view, is that half of organizations don’t seem really committed to holding onto their best talent and developing these people to contribute at higher levels of performance.”

In addition, the survey shows only 10% of companies who are at least trying to ID top talent are doing so in a systematic way.  Big mistake, says Edwards. “When we learn that so many companies rely on ‘informal’ methods the alarm bell should sound. ‘Informal’ is often just explaining away a lack of rigor.”

What about your company? Do you have a formal way of identifying top talent? If not, why not? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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