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David Clutterbuck

Beyond Goals


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Time for a rethink of what we mean by talent?


Talent is arguably one of the most imprecise concepts in management-speak. When I ask a group of HR professionals and/or line managers to expand on what they mean by talent, it’s common to receive at least a dozen different responses. For example, they may refer to:

  • A specific skill or aptitude
  • Someone who demonstrates high performance in their current role and potential for advancement to the next level of responsibility
  • The top 1% or 2% of people, who might make it into the C-suite
  • Someone who ticks the boxes on a competency framework
  • Someone like me (on the basis that, if they are like me, they must be talented)

The problem is not just one of consistency. Even if an organisation settles on a consistent definition of talent, assessing people against that definition is fraught with difficulty. Take the infamous nine-box grid, which positions people on the basis of the second of the definitions above. It’s sold as an objective method of identifying talent, but it’s anything but. We can’t measure performance with any accuracy in managerial roles, because it is so dependent on factors beyond the individual’s control – including luck, the competence of the person’s boss and the work system of which they are a part.

Research into what happens when star performers move to another organisation shows that they typically take years to recover their performance level, if they ever do, because their performance was based on a fit within a specific system and environment. Additionally, the more we emphasise individual performance, the less teamwork we get and hence the power of the overall performance.

It’s not surprising that some organisations, such as Adobe, have thrown out traditional performance appraisals. Apart from saving an estimated 80,000 hours a year of management time, this radical action has restored the lost art of authentic conversations between employees and their bosses. It has also increased retention of high contributors and increased the exodus of consistent poor performers.

We can’t really measure potential, either. The evidence-based literature leads to only one conclusion: potential can only be measured with any accuracy, when the individual is already doing a role similar to the one they have apparent potential for. One study of the Peter Principle suggests that assigning people randomly for promotion from a team would be marginally more effective than using performance in the role below as a measure of potential.

Leadership competency frameworks are another case of mis-selling. Among the many problems associated with them are that:

  • What constitutes good leadership varies significantly from role to role. In a fire service, for example, the qualities of “political” leaders are very different from those of managers, who lead colleagues into burning buildings – but both are important. The qualities of an effective leader also vary from culture to culture.
  • The tighter you define a leadership competence, the easier it is for your friendly organisational sociopath to fake them
  • They tend to be backward looking, when they should be forward looking
  • They undermine attempts at diversity, because they are typically based on observations and assumptions that belong to a male, culturally specific perspective.

The net result of these comfortable but unfounded assumptions is that trying to decide who is and isn’t 'talent' leads to demotivation and employee turnover. Those, whose talent is not recognised, seek environments where what they have to offer will be appreciated. Those who are 'anointed' firstly begin to slacken off and invest less in their personal development in the mistaken belief that they have 'arrived'. Then, if they don’t get promoted fast enough, they too start to dust off their CVs.

So should we give up on the notion of talent? No (sighs of relief)! Instead we need to take a view of talent that is based on a complex adaptive system perspective. (By contrast, grids, competencies and other 'HR bling' are based on linear systems thinking.) In a complex adaptive approach, we create situations and opportunities that enable talent to rise of its own accord.

Put the right opportunities in front of people, who have interest in them, and they will demonstrate their talent. It also helps to focus less on who can step up into a role than on who might transform it; on achieving 'requisite diversity' and on enabling open and honest conversations about talent and development.

Consider, too, the language of talent management. Replace pools (stagnant and shallow), pipelines (narrow, one-way, easily blocked and prone to leak) with words that give a greater sense of dynamism, flexibility and releasing energy. If there is a single word that sums up a systemic approach to talent management it is energy – the capacity and will to make things happen. And that’s as precise a definition as we can find of HR’s role in talent management – releasing the energy within the workforce.

One Response

  1. People are complicated

    This is a mantra that should be solidly implanted into every manager, every HR person, every union or staff association rep.

    We try and compartmentalise people as it makes it feel easier to generalise.  We use Myers-Briggs or Belbin to try and separate people into simplistic high-level groups, but we're still trying to put nice, clean, simple labels on incredibly complex and messy creatures.  Worse still, we identify the labels, and then don't do anything based on them.  I've seen various companies go through at least one of the major labelling exercises, and then make no changes to team structure based on it.  It always seemed that simply knowing what the label was for each person was regarded as an adequate outcome for the exercise.  I've never seen a company have the courage of their convictions and rebuild teams around the newly-identified labels.

    And 'talent' is such a flexible word.  Do you want someone super-smart, but also super-brittle?  Or would you trade a few points of IQ for a few more social skills?  Often, the greater the talent, the greater the baggage that comes with it.  You might be happy for your high-performers to be high-maintenance, but there's a reason we use 'prima donna' as a perjorative term these days.  There are certain fields, such as sport and the arts, where it's considered worthwhile to pander to the whims of the top stars, but the case for doing so in a more normal business environment seems a lot less clear to me.

    I've seen it in action – a programming team had a member who was genuinely brilliant.  He was the go-to guy for the nastiest bugs, and when they had to have a solution -now-.  Which would have been wonderful, had he not also embodied many of the stereotypical traits of the hardcore geek.  He had poor social skills, and questionable personal hygiene.  He would say inappropriate things and claim refuge in honesty ("Well, she *is* fat…!").  He would take pleasure in ridiculing someone if he found an error in their work, or if they went to him for help with a problem.  He was shielded from a lot of the fallout that would otherwise have come his way by his manager, who saw in him an extremely valuable resource.  He did solve a lot of problems and he was never happier than when he was cranking out code, or ferreting through it looking for bugs.  But nobody liked him.  Not even the manager who took the flak for him.  He was the antithesis of a team player. 

    Was he talented?  Along certain very narrow lines, extremely so.  But I was never of the opinion that the advantages outweighed the disadvantages.


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