Written by Barrie Bramley, with Vicky Solomon.
Barrie BramleyWhen we talk about ‘talented’ people, what do we actually mean? The word talent is currently a buzzword and is being thrown about in today’s society but a conclusive definition is hard to come by.
Organisations talk about recruiting and retaining talented people as part of their vision. In an office environment, it is not uncommon to hear about an employee or peer being talented. In our everyday lives, we tend to classify certain people as talented, be these people our friends, associates or even a hero. However, when people are asked what talent actually means, a clear decisive answer generally cannot be given. The answer usually is “I’ll know it when I see it�. If given a specific example such as Lance Armstrong, the answer is “Because he’s so good!�
In many cases, it is easiest to define talent by looking at an example. Let’s continue with Lance, winner of the Tour de France for 7 consecutive years. What makes him so exceptional? The fact that he has won the Tour de France not once, but 7 times in a row. The fact that he has pushed himself and his boundaries to limits most of us can only imagine. The fact that he has redefined the limits of cycling and human capabilities. His determination, ability and drive make him stand above the rest. Imagine you were part of Universal Studios. When casting for a male leading role, would you accept any A-list actor or would you want Denzel Washington who will win you Oscars (and draw audiences into theatres)? When recruiting for your organisation, would you accept anyone who is good, who will get the job done, or do you want someone exceptional?

In an attempt to define the all-elusive ‘talent’, a Hungarian-born mathematician Alfred Lotka developed the Lotka graph, a graphic representation of exceptional performance. This graph describes the distribution of excellence and using this we can define talent as people who have been brilliant time after time, not just once.

For example, in the graph above, we’ve plotted the number of times authors have been published on a certain topic. The number of authors with one published article is quite large, but the as the number of published articles increases, the number of authors logarithmically decreases. In this case, only 2 authors have more than 10 articles to their name, and only one has more then 20. The same applies in sport. For example, plotting the number of Major gold tournaments a golfer has won. Only 2 golfers have more than 10 to their name, and only a very few more than 1.
The Lotka graph helps us to understand that talent is evenly distributed on a bell curve distribution. Talent is something really special, and is related to consistent brilliance. This usually comes by pushing boundaries and stretching the limits of what is thought possible, or even acceptable.
When looking at how organisations define talent, we find a subtly different approach. While organisations will define talented people as those who perform at a superior level consistently, they also are looking for people who will not rock the boat, who will “get on with it� without too much managerial involvement and who will put the company ahead of personal interests. The company hopes that these are people who can be left alone to do their jobs without any complaint. But this is a mechanistic point of view.
The biggest problem with this definition is that this is not how talented people see themselves. Talented people understand the business or corporate game. They know how to play it, to use the tools of the game to push the rules and themselves to the edge. They know what needs to be done in order to succeed.
Exceptionally talented people, the people at the edge of the Lotka curve, are hard to come by. These are people who have pushed the boundaries, played the game aggressively and have managed to stay at this edge of the curve. Expecting consistent high performance from talented people requires a significant amount of hard work from the organisation itself. Organisations need to understand what talent actually is, the consequences of exceptional talent and need to be prepared to invest heavily in these people. Rewards such as salaries and bonuses form just part of this investment. An organisation will need to take the time to develop strategies and processes in order to recruit and retain talent effectively. Are you willing as an organisation to give these people the space to unleash their potential, to test the boundaries and pick them up when they fail? Are you willing to recognise that there is a significant difference between a good worker and a talented worker? Are you ready to recognise talent in your workers and to encourage, nurture and constantly reinforce it? Talent begets talent, and constructive feedback is critical to maintain a talented individual. There is a difference between Rubens Barichello and Michael Schumacher. The difference is the ability to be exceptional.
To a large extent organisations and their people want the same thing. Both want to give and be given a superior performance consistently. But organisations need to realise that this cannot be mechanistic. A talented person is not going to (and cannot) do this alone. Exceptional people need to be managed, to be set almost unachievable tasks, with personal development objectives included, and given candid feedback on these. Failure must be an option in order to grow. Challenge is everything.
In the 1990s, businesses looked for loyalty and people looked for security. Then, business efficiency swept the world and in its wake companies downsized. Talented people watched their parents losing their jobs and this exchange become unacceptable. In today’s world, companies want superior performance and people want space and the freedom to be creative and develop themselves. We’re looking at the organisational dream versus the personal dream. The organisation is constantly striving to steamline processes and the status quo; people will challenge this. Talented people will ask why.
Talent wants to push and be pushed. These are people who need to be constantly looked after and given the space to unleash massive potential. They want and need the freedom to be the best and to be challenged.
Organisations need to be prepared for the effect having talented people in the office will have on the business. They will need to provide mentoring; an environment to develop and grow; open and honest communication and the space for people to try new things. The business will need to open up and become transparent. Talented people need to know and understand an organisation.
Being talented does not only mean impressing a manager. It means impressing peers and standing up in the company, in the industry, possibly even multiple industries. Are you as an organisation prepared to acknowledge that these people are not performing for you exclusively? Denzel Washington does not do an exceptional job for Universal Studios. He does this for himself, his peers and the industry (and yes, for the money). Are you happy to show these people off and give them the opportunities and mechanisms to show off?
Your organisation and the business world are constantly changing. Your industry, competition, products, policies and procedures change. An organisation adapts to these changes quickly and wants its people to keep up and stay aligned with the business. An organisation wants people who relish the challenge of change and not people who stick to the old ways of doing things because these ways worked in the past. What worked yesterday will not necessarily work today and almost definitely will not work tomorrow.
Consistent high performance cannot solely define talent. This is just one component. People who go beyond this are exceptional. These are people who will push you and themselves to the limits. They will perform brilliantly, not just once, not just every now and then, but will excel time and time again. The time and money you invest in these people will be worth it. Your organisation will move from being a successful one to a talented one.

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