What do we mean when we talk about talent?

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How you define talent can have a major impact on your organisation

Simon Cowell has nothing on HR. A somewhat bizarre statement you might think. But deciding who is more preoccupied with ‘talent’ – Saturday night TV’s panto baddie or HR departments – is no mean feat.

Ever since McKinsey’s 1997 research and subsequent 2001 publication The War for Talent, this has been high on HR professionals’ priority lists. Recruiting and developing talented employees can be incredibly crucial to organisations’ success, and senior leaders are increasingly aware of this. PwC’s 18th Annual Global CEO Survey found that 61% of CEOs saw retention of skills and talent as a key issue over the next five years, with the ability to acquire and manage talent cited as the second most critical capability for tomorrow’s CEO.

The result of this growing preoccupation has been a multitude of interpretations of what this one small, initially fairly straight-forward-seeming word means. Which has probably left a fair few HR professionals confused.

Should they be using ‘talent’ to describe only the very best, and prospective best, performers in their organisations? Or should the word be used to refer to all employees, reflecting the value of all and avoiding the dreaded ‘talent apartheid’? And in fact should the word – which can bring to mind potentially unhelpful connotations – be used at all?

The perhaps good news, says independent researcher and professor at Kingston Business School and principal associate of the Institute of Employment Studies (IES) Wendy Hirsh, is that there isn’t necessarily a right and wrong stance. Just because your organisation approaches the term differently to another, doesn’t necessarily mean someone’s got it wrong.

The perhaps less good news following from this is that arriving at a definition of ‘talent’ that works for your company isn’t easy. And while it might not be easy, it is crucial to do.

The language issue

Hirsh explains that the way language is used within a business is critical to strategy formation; how the word ‘talent’ is used will have a decisive impact on an organisation’s talent management approach.

“The HR profession got itself into a real muddle chucking about the ‘talent’ word before thinking about what it might mean and whether it is a helpful word to use,” she says.

“Some of the organisations I’ve worked with have decided to studiously avoid the use of the word talent. This can be a good idea. Some do use it and that’s also fine. But it’s critical that language is used consistently across an organisation because this is difficult territory. It is stuff about what people might want to become when they grow up. And the more difficult something is, the more important it is to use language clearly, to help people pin down what they mean.”

HR professionals would do well, then, to closely scrutinise the ways in which they’re tempted to use ‘talent’. It’s advisable to keep a critical eye on whether this suits their particular situation. And remember that the word can be a slippery customer, prone to taking the most well-meaning talent management strategies off course, if its everyday connotations are left unchecked.

The most obvious and tempting way to use ‘talent’ is perhaps inline with its everyday meaning – as synonymous with ‘top talent’, those individuals who are in some way the very best. Using this definition it’s easy to see the appealing logic behind McKinsey’s War for Talent model. People ensure the success of an organisation, ergo the more talent or top talent you can recruit the more successful you’ll be.

This school of thought has of course been subject to a fair amount of unpicking, courtesy of the likes of K. Anders Ericsson and Malcolm Gladwell. Both have critiqued the logic of all job descriptions benefitting from the most talented person possible. The general consensus emerging now tends to be that only certain positions will benefit from this, and so talent management strategies should focus here.

For some the natural extension of this logic has been that the more senior the role, the more it will benefit from recruitment and development of top talent. “When people talk talent and potential they have for some time meant ‘being something terribly senior around here’,” confirms Hirsh.

Critical roles

Ben Bengougam, EMEA VP of HR at Hilton Worldwide, explains that some companies’ success will indeed rest to a large extent on the strength of their most senior employees. “Realistically for many organisations, the most critical individuals are going to be those in very senior positions or high up in technical fields – those people most drive the business’s performance,” he says.

But many firms’ success will in fact ride on a much more complex combination of factors, he points out: “80-90% of your people are really solid good performers, that do your day-in-day-out work, that you can’t afford to lose. You could argue that they’re almost as valuable, as a general pool of resource, as your top game changers.”

Rob Briner, professor of organisational psychology at the University of Bath, warns that companies whose success does not ride solely on the brilliance of their most senior employees can become unhelpfully distracted by this thinking.

“People are terribly impressed with the idea of heroes and superstars,” he says. “But perhaps we put too much faith in these leaders and senior people because it’s scary otherwise. People do that because the alternative is much more subtle and complicated. It’s easier to think about superstars than the hard question of ‘what do we actually need to do to succeed and how do we achieve that?’

“For most companies it’s actually about more basic, mundane things like good organisational structure, or designing jobs properly. This is boring stuff that people don’t like – they like super brilliant stars because it’s fun and easy.”

Workforce as talent

Given the sound logic of this way of thinking, it’s perhaps unsurprising that another school of thought springing from fairly widespread rejection of McKinsey is one describing whole workforces as ‘the talent’.

Though many are no longer convinced of the sense in cramming organisations full of top talent, McKinsey-style, a more nuanced version where all employees are valued as talent and treated as such could perhaps ensure the kind of carefully distributed resource management Briner describes.

“I think we now see a lot of influence from the positive psychology literature, which argues everybody is talent,” confirms David Collings, professor of HRM at Dublin City University, on the rise in popularity of this approach in recent years, and the resultant continuation of the rebadging of whole HR departments to ‘talent management’.

Of his own preference for ‘the talent’ to describe all employees, Hilton’s Bengougam points out this can ensure the development of all staff, and greatly improve motivation and retention rates.

“While some organisations have chosen to use talent to describe the elite, others use it in a more general way to describe everyone. That’s probably the definition to which I subscribe on the basis that everyone has talent, everyone has potential, and you need to make sure you’re developing this potential.”

“There’s a business imperative around that too, because if you don’t make that happen you will lose the talent.”

But what such organisations must be alive to, both here and when using ‘talent’ to describe ‘top talent’, is the way the word as a noun can lead to oversimplification. Describing all employees or separating some out as ‘the talent’ can stop a company drilling down into each person’s specific qualities, warns VP of people and organisational development at the Dorchester Collection Eugenio Pirri.

“By just blanket describing everyone as ‘talent’ because it’s a nice term to use, that’s like saying all your employees are the same. The worst thing you can do is have an army of the same talent, in my opinion. You need diversity and difference of thought and the right amount of conflict, so you need to recognise and develop different talents.”

Of his preference for using ‘talent’ adjectivally, Pirri adds: “Talent is something that you look for in employees.”

By staying alert to workers’ different talents, organisations can hopefully avoid the slightly magical connotations of the everyday meaning of ‘talent’, as something highly desirable yet indefinable – ‘the x factor’ as it were.

So use of ‘talent’ to define a quality rather than a person (or as an adjective rather than a noun), could help avoid the assumption that ‘talent’ describes a certain quality or set of qualities everyone can agree exists objectively, independent of context.

The organisation’s needs

Crucially, this should help HR professionals judge ‘talent’ through the lens of what employee qualities the business actually needs, says Pirri. “You always have to start with what you are all about and what the talents are that work for your organisation,” he says.

“If you’re a sales business then you’re going to be driven by people who can persuade, relationship-build, and close deals. If your company is all about guest service then you’re looking for people who can win others over, have attention to detail and can problem solve quickly.”

For Keith Robson, an HR practitioner of 20 years and until very recently senior director of learning and organisational development at eBay, labelling the entire workforce as ‘talent’ prevents businesses from having conversations about which roles are the most important, and which individuals are most able to deliver in them.

“‘Talent’ is now used as a general wrapper to describe the whole employee population. People say things like ‘we need to get a feel for the kind of talent we have in the company’. Or they’ll call the entire hiring function ‘talent acquisition’. For me that dilutes what we view as talent, it confuses the issue.”

“We need to remember that in any organisation you will always have x per cent of people who add greater value than the rest. That’s just a reality.”

Collings adds that conversations regarding which roles are most important and therefore which current and prospective employees are the most vital to recruit, retain and develop, will come down to resource distribution for many.

“We should treat everyone well when it comes to managing them, that goes without saying. But if I have an extra 10% in my budget for employee development where do I spend it? Do I spread it across the organisation or do I try to be a bit more strategic and invest it where it’s likely to have the most impact?”

Hirsh adds that a mistake many make is swinging too dramatically one way or the other – to concentrate all their energies on roles they’ve decided are critical, or to spread resource too thinly as described by Collings.

“I think one of the most ridiculous things is people insisting on either or,” she says. “Developing the whole of the workforce isn’t something you can ignore, but attending to key groups also makes business sense.”

Leverage succession

She adds that the language of succession – and ensuring talent and succession strategies are closely linked – is often more helpful in getting businesses to think about what kinds of talent their organisation needs, as is the word ‘potential’ rather than ‘talent’.

“In many companies I find using the word ‘successor’ more helpful because it’s a clear way of asking managers to think about talent. You’re saying: ‘who could you see being able to do this job in time?’ ‘Potential’ also naturally raises the question: potential for what?”

‘Potential’ is often a more useful term, says Hirsh, because it avoids one of the most unhelpful connotations of the word ‘talent’ according to its dictionary definition of ‘innate ability, aptitude or faculty’.

“I think one of the biggest problems we have when using ‘talent management’ is it immediately sets up a conflict in people’s minds between their normal understanding of the word ‘talent’, which is innate ability, and the often ill-explained ways HR people may use the same word,” she explains.

The danger is that HR professionals then lose sight of the management, or rather specifically the development, side of things Hirsh explains, becoming blind to spotting potential. Whereas more carefully chosen language can be effective in reconnecting people with “a sense of time” when it comes to developing talent.

“The danger is that sometimes when people talk about talent management they really mean talent spotting. So one of the advantages of succession speak is it always makes clear the difference between someone who is ready now and someone who will be ready later,” explains Hirsh.

She adds that the nine-box grid contributes to this unthinking definition of ‘talent’ as “people who are already doing their current job very well and are ready to move up”, rather than those who might have potential to eventually do so.

A real risk here is that companies won’t be able to see the latent potential they already have in-house and so will continually rely on recruiting externally, says chief people officer at Metro Bank Danielle Harmer.

“I’ve been in companies where this has happened. People said ‘we’ve got no talent internally, we have to go and find bright young things’. And you watch all the great people leave because they’re so un-nurtured and unloved.”

Performance versus potential

Breaking conversations about talent into two very separate discussions, one about performance and one on potential, can help avoid these ‘talent spotting’ and external talent recruiting traps, advises Robson.

“One of the things we did at eBay was to start discussing those separately. Because when you’re talking about talent, if you start to talk about performance and potential as one conversation it quickly becomes a conversation solely about performance because that’s right under everybody’s noses.

“Talking about performance is not that difficult, whereas potential tends to be much more difficult to articulate. In splitting it out we were able to get a good adult conversation going around what true potential looks like and potential to do what.”

Professor of management practice at London Business School Lynda Gratton adds the caveat however, that companies shouldn’t become so obsessed with spotting potential inside their business that they go too far this way. They shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that, increasingly, talent may sit outside of a company.

“I do think this idea of the talent ecosystem is important because the question is: where is your talent?” she says. “Actually there might be people who could be very valuable to you but don’t want to work with your organisation full-time.”

And so what we talk about when we say the word ‘talent’ can vary depending on who we are and what organisation we work for. ‘Talent’ might for those reliant on the skills of tech-savvy freelancers for example, lie outside of your business. It might mean the entire workforce, and reflect how important every single person’s aptitude at their job is to the organisation’s success. Or it might mean certain individuals in the company who will necessarily always have greater impact than the rest.

What should, however, be the same from organisation to organisation is the consistency with which the word is applied, and the care taken to ensure the way it’s used suits the business’s needs. Another matter well worth considering is the way other language around ‘talent’ is used to really clarify, both internally within HR and externally to the company, exactly what talent management should entail.

Because while the word ‘talent’ might come with unhelpful everyday meaning baggage, it is perhaps the best approximation of what we talk about when we’re discussing talent that we’ve got.

And, having made successful inroads into bringing people issues more firmly into the boardroom in recent years, it looks very much set to stay.

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Good research


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