The problem with 'talent'

Assessing and selecting talent raises far more questions than answers, and is far more exclusive than inclusive

Who hasn't been to a conference where the focus is on 'top talent'? It’s as if all other employees are somehow irrelevant to success. But what exactly is talent, who are these people, how many do we have and what do we do with them?

Let's start with the first problem: who is talent? Is it showing high performance, potential or both? And against what criteria? Do these criteria reflect current leadership or an assessment of future leadership capabilities? Selecting talent on the basis of performance alone delivers a potential failure rate of 50% or more at the next level.

Assuming we have the right criteria then we move on to whether we are measuring effectively against those. How many data sources do we have? Of these how many are subjective? Line managers are highly subjective even with clear criteria. If we use the traditional line manager as a key data source we know their accuracy could be 25% either way. Not only that, but without benchmarking between line managers we won’t get the real talent; just a group of people line managers rate generously. So the more objective the data the better.

The CEO wants his top 100 but we have 106 who have met the criteria. The top 106 doesn’t have quite the same ring to it so we'll just take the top 100. But who are they? Given the inaccuracy of line manager assessments, we could have maybe 20 who shouldn’t be on the list and 20 who should be but aren’t.

So having fudged it and delivered the 'top 100,' then we have the awkward problem of what we publicly call this 'talent'. If we use 'talent' does it mean that those not on the list are less talented or not talented? That’s the implication.

Then comes the big announcement. Who tells them they are the chosen ones? Why do we say they were chosen? What does it mean for them? Even more important perhaps is what we say to those who wanted to be in the group but weren’t? Are they doomed to be untalented, or could they have another chance?

Every one of those questions might be an HR issue. But it's also a critical political and perspective issue for the entire employee group. The answers will lead them to conclude that this is a genuine attempt to find those who have potential now and allow others to join them in the future, or yet another smoke and mirrors exercise by senior management to promote people they like.

But there is a label solution: accelerated development. Everyone who meets the criteria is included, there are no numbers limits, and good, multiple-sourced, benchmarked data is used to assess this. Those not selected this year are told if they meet the criteria next year they are in. Thus criteria become part of their development plans. Senior leaders are involved in communications so it has a personal impact on those involved.

The biggest challenge, and reward, is to proactively develop everyone to make them into 'talent'. That’s what inspires me at conferences; organisations that select their talent with care but who also develop the talents everyone has to create a 'we not me culture' where mutual success is everyone's talent.

Chris Roebuck is visiting professor of transformational leadership at Cass Business School