Imagine everyone on the planet simultaneously getting in contact with 150,000 other people.  This is what is actually happening with each of the neurons in the brain of a young child.  Scientists now know that by the age of three there are up to fifteen thousand connections for each of the one hundred billion neurons in our brain.  Not surprisingly this is far too much information to cope with, so we have developed a way of making sense of it all.  Our own unique sense of it!  During the following ten years our brain refines what it believes is important and begins focusing on particular connections more than others.

Superhighways and Barren Wastelands
Dr. Harry Chugani, Professor of Neurology at Wayne State University Medical School has a nice way of explaining this refining and pruning process:  “Roads with the most traffic get widened and the ones rarely used fall into disrepair”.

Each and every one of us is left to our own devices when it comes to this pruning process and by the time we are in our early teens we have only half as many neural connections as when we were three.  This means that we have each carved out our own unique network of connections.  We each have our own beautiful free-flowing and open superhighways, but that also means we have some barren wastelands where no connections are made at all.  Our mind becomes like a filter that only responds to what is on the superhighways and the wastelands are not even noticed.

If someone has a superhighway for the logic of numerical patterns they will enjoy calculating and measuring.  Every activity will be given a numerical value, depending on their preferences it may be time, money or some other quantifiable notion.
If someone has a superhighway for empathy they will feel every emotion of those around them as if they were their own, they will have a comfortable familiarity with the language and expression of emotions.  However, if they have a wasteland for empathy they may be emotionally blind, be confused by other’s emotions and may have a habit of saying the wrong thing to the wrong person at the wrong time.  It is interesting to note that they don’t do this out of malice, it’s just an inability to pick up on the emotional signals being sent out.

What is Talent?
These days there is a whole entertainment business set up around defining talent.  But it is mainly defining talent through the narrow lens of a few celebrity judges and popular taste.  It may be interesting to review your own thoughts about what talent means to you, because it’s mostly seen as a rare and precious thing; something that famous and special people possess, but not normal people like you and me.

The great managers studied by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman disagree with this narrow and specialised definition.  In their book ‘First Break All The Rules’ Buckingham and Coffman discovered that great managers, those with consistently high performing teams, define talent as “a recurring pattern of thought, feeling, or behaviour that can be productively applied”.   The key word in that definition is ‘recurring’. 

Your talents, they say, are the behaviours you find yourself doing often.  We all filter the world according to our mental superhighways and this means that as you sift your experience of the world, you are forced to pay attention to some stimuli while others slip past you unnoticed.  For example, your need to find the best procedure for activities may have you colour code your wardrobe, alphabetise your spice rack or write your shopping list according to the aisles in your local supermarket, it is a talent.  Your instinctive ability to remember names rather than just faces is a talent, as is a fascination with risk or perhaps your impatience and the desire to take action.

Any recurring patterns of behaviour that can be productively applied are talents. 

The key to excellent performance is finding the match between your talents and your role.  However, there is another element to this.  Consider the following formula:-

T x I = S

Take T for ‘Talent’ (a natural way of thinking feeling or behaving) multiply it by I for ‘Investment’ (time spent practicing, developing skills and building knowledge base) equalling S for ‘Strength’.

Talent by itself is not enough.  It needs to be practiced and used frequently or it will be squandered.  It needs to be developed or it will become another wasteland.

For more about what is required to develop a strength and even mastery in a particular field, see the blog ‘Prioritising Practice and Practicing Priorities’.

Dispelling the myths
The great managers studied by Buckingham and Coffman are able to dispel two of the most common management myths:

Myth #1 “Talents are rare and special”
There is nothing particularly special about talents, we all have recurring patterns of thought, feeling or behaviour.  It could be said that they are an accident of birth, but the difference that makes the difference is whether an individual is able and willing to invest time and effort into developing their talents into something that can be productively applied.   Many people are totally unaware of their talents.  The skill of a great manager is to identify the talents of his or her people and find a role that gives them plenty of opportunity to apply them productively. 

Myth # 2 “Some roles are so easy, they don’t require talent”
There are many managers who make assumptions that everyone is as ambitious as they are.  They assume that many roles like food service, administration or telemarketing are ‘entry level’ jobs that ‘anybody can do with a bit of training’.  They map their own filters onto the people in these ‘lower level’ roles and with the best intentions they build career paths and try to quickly promote people out of the “drudgery”. 

Great managers don’t make any assumptions and don’t believe that their filters are common to everyone.  When they select for a role, they are guided by a belief that some people are finely tuned to excel at the role and will get great satisfaction from doing it well.  There is now plenty of scientific research to back up this belief.

If a role is to be performed at excellence it deserves respect and so does the person performing it. 

Selecting for talent
The first thing you need to consider when selecting for talent is ‘What are the requirements of the role?’  This is a lot more than the Job Description.  You also need to consider the environment and culture of the business as well as the qualities and characteristics of the sort of person who will enjoy the role and flourish in it.   A sales person with a highly proactive approach and a keen focus on goals and money may flourish in a business that emphasises closing the deal, but in businesses that require a consultative and relationship-based approach, he or she may fail.

A study done with Call Centre staff discovered that what makes for an excellent performer in one business can contrast considerably from an excellent performer in another Call Centre.  The difference lies in the types of calls being made, the culture of the organisation and the prevailing management style.

The key when interviewing for talent is to ask a few carefully selected open-ended questions and then keep very quiet.  Allow the interviewee to reveal himself by the choice he makes, the connections he makes with his experience and his own filters.

The questions should be broad enough to offer many possible answers.  Don’t fall into the trap of unwittingly providing bias or guidance.  For example you could ask: “How closely do you think people should be supervised?” or “What do you enjoy most about selling?”  The spontaneous response will be the best indicator of his future behaviour.  If he asks for an explanation, just reply that you are interested in what he means.  Let him know that it is his interpretation of the questions that is important.  Let him reveal himself to you using his own filters and mental superhighways.

An interesting insight from Buckingham and Coffman is that great managers always believe what the respondents say.  If they ask a candidate how important it is to be the best and he responds “Well, I like to be the best, but mostly I just try to be the best I can be” they believe him.  If they ask what a candidate for a teaching position loves about teaching and they never mention children, they believe him. 

A person’s unaided response to open-ended questions is highly predicative.  Great managers trust it, no matter how much they want to hear something else.

Another great way to discover some excellent questions to ask at interview is to let candidates who you want to interview complete an ‘inventory of Work Attitude and Motivation’ (or iWAM for short).  This fascinating tool explores their working and motivational preferences and makes it easy to pinpoint the areas where there may be a match or mismatch between what is required and what the candidate is motivated by. It is a quick and very cost effective way to discover their mental superhighways and then design some questions to verify if there is a match with their recurring patterns of thought, feeling, or behaviour that can be productively applied to the requirements of the job.

To find out more about the iWAM please click here

If you want a good standard checklist of interview questions just click here  and follow the instructions.

Your opinions and comments on any of the above are welcome!

Remember  . . . stay curious!

David Klaasen
David Klaasen is director and owner of the niche HR consultancy, Inspired Working Ltd.  (
We now have a new website packed full of learning resources for managers for more info see
If you have a communication or performance problem and would like some objective advice drop him a line at
[email protected].

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