Ray de VilliersRaymond de Villiers, director of Talent at TomorrowToday.biz, asks corporate leaders to define talent. Its not good enough to answer: “I’ll know it when I see it”. Raymond then provides a framework for understanding who is talented, how to identify them, and what will engage them most effectively. This is one of the most important articles you will ever read on the issue of Talent.

Through the course of the past year the scales have come off the eyes of the global corporate community, and CEO statements are increasingly reflecting companies’ sense of urgency around the need for talent. These statements reflect the understanding that corporate competitive advantage is shifting away from the traditional focus on product only, toward a perspective that realizes that competitive advantage is also about ‘who we have’. In this shift the crucial commodity that organisations need to unlock is that of talent.

In this light it should concern us that so few people are able to define or describe what they mean when they say ‘talent’. The general reply to questions about how people identify talent is: “I know it when I see it�. While there certainly is a subjective component to the defining and identifying of talent, we also need to have a more objective reference point. This is especially true if talent is indeed a competitive area and we are going to pay it more than mere lip-service.

The importance of talent in society is not peculiar to the 21st century corporate world – talent has always been a factor that separates those who are successful from those who aren’t. The point is, however, that expectations and requirements of talent have shifted through history:

In the Hunter-Gatherer era talent was all about physical strength, endurance, and metabolic efficiency related to being able to function at a high level on limited nutritional resources.

In the Agrarian economy talented people had an unusual understanding of the soil, the seasons, and the ebbs and flows of nature’s cycles. They were consequently able to produce more crops and product than their neighbours.

In the Industrial age we experienced the rise of the corporation. Talent in this era was those who could work efficiently and effectively within the constraints of the production line environment. The type of people who were sought after were skilled artisans and those with a technical orientation. The best of these were promoted to supervise and manage others.

In the Information and Technology age talent was still defined by their technical skills and abilities, albeit applied within a different context. There was a shift from physical work to mental ability. (It has become increasingly clear that old paradigms of supervision and management are ineffective in this environment).

In the current shift toward the Connection economy, talent has once again begun to be redefined. Talent in this era are those who are increasingly more emotionally, spiritually, and relationally intelligent.

In short, one of the ‘pains’ experienced in trying to define talent is that we need to understand the social context within which they need to function. Our specific definition of a talented individual is intricately connected to the social context we come from and consequently expect them to be delivering in.

With this contextual understanding in place we can still ask the question as to whether talent through the ages have shared any basic foundational characteristics? Subir Chowdhury the management theorist has condensed talent into this generic definition: “capability applied to create value that is recognized and rewarded by primary stakeholders� 1.

The world of sport provides a useful parallel to the corporate world in investigating an understanding of talent. In any sport there is the huge pool of people who engage in the sport on an irregular, ad hoc, and recreational basis. Within this group of people are those who are genuinely (‘naturally’) good at the sport and are recognized as so by their peers. This group is refined further into those who have sufficient skill to turn professional. And then there is the final group of individuals who win consistently and set the pace everyone else aspires to. This final group of the ‘best of the best’ are also generally innovative and they end up having their training and conditioning programmes copied by everyone else below them. Athletes like this come along once in a generation, e.g. Lance Armstrong, Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, or Michael Schumacher. A similar hierarchy is in place in the corporate world.

The vast majority of people come to work and ‘go with the flow’. Another group of individuals are those who apply some effort and end up ‘surfing on the flow’. There is a third group who invest their abilities and are able to ‘direct the flow’. And there is a final group of individuals who ‘look for new currents’ and are able to identify the next big wave of opportunity that will come rolling through.

Go with the flow – these members of staff generally just come to work to pay the bills and take home a pay cheque. They add little additional value to the business apart from doing the job they are paid to do. They are essential to the daily operations of the company, and provide a bedrock for maintaining status quo.

Surfing the flow – these are those members of staff who try hard to contribute, but for a variety of reasons they never rise above average or ‘acceptable’ standards. This group can benefit from additional training and bring a degree of return to the business for effort expended in improving their technical ability, and bringing them to benchmarked levels. When looking at these individuals they are definitely better performers than the general staff, but they aren’t talent.

Directing the flow – this group have the ability to interact with their context, their team, and the expected outputs to deliver above average results. The value they bring to an organisation is that they maximize current opportunities to generate more returns than their peers. Their focus is on the ‘present’. They could be referred to as ‘high performers’, who go above and beyond minimum requirements, and are able to operate at a consistently high level of output.

Looking for new currents – they are known for constantly pushing the boundaries. They are not always the most comfortable people to be on a team with, because while everyone else is trying to make a success of the present these individuals are constantly challenging the status quo. The value they bring to organisations is that they have focus on the future and are consequently key to securing future opportunities. They might be called ‘gamebreakers’ or ‘mavericks’.

Talent are exceptional because of their ability to migrate easily between the latter two areas depending on requirements. Talented individuals are able to work in a way that acknowledges the constraints of the situation and delivers maximum results. In other circumstances they will push the boundaries and constraints and move a company out of complacency and discover new opportunities.

In the process of delivering, talent are driven by one primary characteristic: the desire to win and make a difference. Talent are not primarily motivated by money but rather by a need to be the best. They have a sense of mission. Sumner Redstone, the CEO of Viacom, is illustrative of this when he says: “The word ‘retirement’ is somehow omitted from my dictionary. I love what I do…. I would like to think that I’m making some kind of a dent in the universe for the better. I’m not sure that’s the case. I know I try. And if you try, perhaps you succeed. But the best news is – I am not yet finished.�2

The ultimate challenge in identifying talent is in separating them from the rest of the members of staff in order to gain the most benefit for the business and to give them appropriately challenging tasks. Equally challenging is to help them with the balancing of the two roles talent play: high performance and gamebreaking – directing the flow and looking for new currents. In our modern drive toward equality this is often one of the most difficult things for a company to digest because it effectively creates an elite. In several of our clients this dynamic is the single biggest stumbling block to them effectively leveraging their talent – they are unable to bring themselves to create a structure that sets these individuals apart.

The following six comparisons can assist in objectively identifying talent:

  1. Talent make and break the rules < -> non-talent conserve the rules
  2. Talent creates < -> non-talent implements
  3. Talent initiates change < -> non-talent supports change
  4. Talent innovates < -> non-talent learns
  5. Talent directs < -> non-talent acts
  6. Talent inspires and lifts people < -> non-talent receives information and motivation.3

Ultimately in the search for talent and its definition we need to acknowledge that talent is far more about aptitude than ability. Consequently, it can be enhanced and developed in those who have it, but it can’t be taught to those in whom it is not present.

As leaders involved in the war for talent we need to engage with three areas in order to objectively identify and define talent.

  1. We need to understand context – what are our unique requirements?
  2. We need to understand the central characteristic of talent – what will provide them with a sense of mission and be something they can win in?
  3. We need to be prepared to draw comparisons – in our search for talent are we courageous enough to identify non-talent?

The final characteristic that will contribute to success in the war for talent is the requirement that all talent have to be led by courageous leaders. In the absence of courageous leadership an objective understanding and definition of talent is useless, because it cannot be applied effectively. So, rather than starting with talent it is important that any talent initiative starts by asking questions of the incumbent organizational leadership. Are they ready to lead the talent they might find?

1 Chowdhury [ed] Organization 21C Financial Times Prentice Hall, New Jersey, 2003 pg2
2 Organisation 21C pg5
3 Adapted from Organisation 21C pg 5-7

Raymond de Villiers is the Director of Talent at TomorrowToday.biz. He is an expert of talent and future of work. He is currently completing an MPhil in Future Studies at the University of Stellenbosch, and has a keen interest in helping companies get the most out of their talented staff and customers. He can be contacted at .

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