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Talent: What is it? Where is it?


Find the talent, find success

Whilst it is important to know what ‘talent’ you have, it is even more important to make sure it is developed and not wasted, says John Pope.

The word is misused

I am uneasy about the way ‘talent’ is used to describe the prominent high fliers; an elite singled out as being people whom it is important to retain, and be given special treatment.

I am even more uneasy when I see some of the specifications which are applied when people are identified as ‘the talent’. A recent article in the financial pages of a newspaper wrote that we are in danger of having managers who are all the same, almost clones, and losing opportunities to employ people who are different, and get excellent results in different ways.

Plus, as Professor Belbin pointed out a long time ago, most teams need a range of different characters, with different approaches and talents that complement each other to be effective.

“The danger of defining ‘talent’ too closely, and identifying what is needed for an individual to be on the ‘talent list’, is that some excellent people will be overlooked.”

Dividing the talented from the un-talented

Not every outstanding manager can be good at everything. The danger of defining ‘talent’ too closely, and identifying what is needed for an individual to be on the ‘talent list’, is that some excellent people will be overlooked. Individuals can easily be over-graded because they had luck or were noticed by the right person at the right time; they can be under-valued and their talents wasted if they are stuck in some backwater.

A definition of talent

My definition of talent, in management and work, is that it is a special aptitude for some activity which makes a big difference to results – not just one of the ordinary competencies considered important in the job. It is something special, different and recognisable.

It may be based on the individual’s logical approach, reasoning and ability to handle complex allocation problems, such as is needed by the production planner or the distribution manager; or a special approach to people which enables the individual to resolve difficult issues in a constructive and productive way. Whatever it is, it is different and special in some way and usually pretty rare.

Is talent that scarce?

I believe talent can be found at all levels in an organisation. I know a middle-level manager who has a talent in getting people to work together under difficult circumstances. She manages her staff meetings with a skill which is awesome; she identifies and gains recognition of the issue, stimulates contributions, identifies and balances the factors and gains commitment to a solution. It helps make her a very effective manager.

What should we do about it?

At annual review, instead of working through a long list of competencies – I was told recently that there are 17 key competencies for a manager, but don’t believe it – we might start by identifying what aspects of work an individual has a real talent for, and skip over these which are just OK.

We could see how and where those talents might be used more effectively. We should look at the waste and misuse of talents; we could even, if we were brave enough, talk to the individuals to find out how they feel their talents might be better applied – that might reduce the feeling we get when at an exit interview we realise that we are losing a more valuable person than we thought we had.

Should we keep a ‘top talent’ list?

We should ask ourselves whether we are really identifying people with outstanding talent rather than those who just have had a good enough range of experience, length of service and good enough ‘grades’ in the school of corporate life.

We could broaden and deepen the talent pool, by looking more widely through the organisation – I knew a marketing director in a big consumer products group who had come from the manufacturing side. He said he got the job because he had been very critical of marketing and sales. He said he had no marketing experience, and was told that’s why he got the job. He did excellently, and helped transform the business.

We could deepen it by looking two or more levels down rather than the usual one level; and we could look at some of the up and coming ones and identify their potential talent earlier and make sure they have opportunities to prove it.

What talents do you want?

The range of talents needed in an organisation may not be the same as in another, and may change over the years. You can, with some trouble, work out what you could do with now – what are you going to want in the future? That will depend on the business strategy and culture, and on your plans.

What about assessment?

The concept of assessment centres originated in the selection boards which the armed forces set up in the 1940’s and which, with some modification, they still use to select people for officer training.

“We should also look carefully for those who have something special about them, some special talent which we believe could be highly valuable in the longer term.”

I know those boards well, having sat on many of them, and am aware of their value as well as their limitations. Their purpose is to select those who have the potential to become officers after they have been trained. Many of the multi-national businesses took the same approach.

In looking for those with latent talent, we should take a similar view; we should look, at every level, for those who show the attitude and approach which could lead to them becoming highly effective managers, when properly developed. But we should also look carefully for those who have something special about them, some special talent which we believe could be highly valuable in the longer term and do our best to retain them and foster their talents and make sure these talents do not run to waste.

Latent talent

By chance, ‘latent’ is an anagram of ‘talent’. But, by much more than chance, much talent remains latent, under-developed and unused within the business. It is not uncommon to find that some junior manager who seems to be going nowhere at work is an outstanding member or leader of some voluntary organisation, and perhaps the commitment which those people give to their work outside their jobs is a reflection of their talents.

How will you get the talent you need?

The ‘war for talent’ sounds like poaching from your competitors and bidding up the rates; it may be necessary in the short term but no answer in the long term. Rio Tinto faces the shortage of talent as a result of depression in the mining industry for some years. Its approach is to make employment more attractive to the best graduates; to widen the ‘pool’ in which they fish for talent; put time, effort and resources into creating career frameworks; and give individuals more ownership of their careers and make best use of the talent they already have. Sounds good to me.

John Pope has been a management consultant for over 40 years and has had his own practice as an independent consultant for over 30 years. He has been active in the development and coaching of managers at senior level and continues to advise businesses on their direction, strategy and the management of change. He can be contacted at

2 Responses

  1. Talent?
    Yay John!

    I think we might all agree that colleagues with ‘high potential’ are not always the same as those who demonstrate ‘high performance’, and of course both need development.

    In terms of properly researched ‘competencies’ that may make any activity really sing and flourish, however these may be defined specifically within an organisation (and they do vary enormously), let’s also separate ‘management’ competencies from ‘leadership’ competencies?

    If we can’t define such competencies, right for *our* organisation, then I guess any performance management and development programme is going to be shooting blind?

    But I am pretty sure we all know organisations that may be blessed with one but not the other (of either management or leadership qualities) – and indeed individuals within them!

    ‘Talent management’ is indeed a many splendoured thing! Common ground, I think?

    Best wishes


  2. A Nelson Mandela perspective on talent

    Your article, and the reference to mining, brought to mind a quote from Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela:

    “………My country is rich in the minerals and gems that lie beneath its soil, but I have always known that its greatest wealth is its people, finer and truer than its purest diamonds.”

    How often, within organisations, do we just not see the talent that we already have?


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