I’m referring to the word ‘talent’ when I ask this question. Mostly because I’m still troubled by the complexity and lack of form the current exploration around ‘talent’ has. We still don’t know how to define it? We still don’t know how to measure it? We still don’t know what it looks like when it sits down in front of us? We don’t know how much we want of it, and we certainly aren’t sure if we really want to manage it, or have the time to do so?

So why don’t we all get together a pick another word? Malcolm Gladwell has a suggestion that I quite like, ‘Outliers’. Certainly we know what we’re talking about when we talk about those who lie outside of the norm, the average, the mean, on the edges of the bell curve we use to describe the distribution of human capability.

Tom Peters uses ‘Talent’ as an alternative word for people – the general population. It’s broad, it’s loose, it’s all encompassing. Others use it to talk about the ‘cream of the crop’, the high-flyers, the absolute best of the best. The weakness of not being able to pin a definition and common understanding down, is that is becomes meaningless and even frustrating when we apply it to our increasingly scientific systems and processes.

I’ve even seen evidence of discomfort around using the term. I’ve met some very large multi-national companies that are reticent to reveal who the talented in their work-pool are, and how they came to those conclusions. All for fear of upsetting, stigmatising and demoralising those that don’t fit into the top right corner of the Talent Grid.

If we all embraced a term that was clear in it’s definition, that left little grey as to who was on the edge of the bell curve and who fell cosily into the middle, we’d at least be able to move to the next step in the process – designing and developing a strategy to attract, retain and motivate the ‘Outliers’ we have. We’d be able to measure their output and their return. We’d be in a far better position to identify the managers that that new what to do with them, and how to get the best from them.

Ultimately we could move on from the current wheel spinning around ‘Talent’ and get to the more meaty issues our businesses face when it comes to people – how to build the best possible environment for everyone within the constraints we have in today’s business environment.

Personally I think the best place to start is with the big picture and then move to the sub-sets within our organisations, however we choose to define them (currently we’re doing it the other way around). I think there are some clear frameworks available to begin to construct a strategy for all, and not just for the undefined few.

Here are my suggestions:

  1. Understand that there is a fundamental shift in the way today’s younger worker sees themselves and their work environment. If you can’t understand this, you’re not ever going to crack the code.
  2. The business environment has significantly shifted in the last 20 years. My opinion is that it’s never going back. In fact it’s only going to get increasingly ‘strange’ for all of us.
  3. Evaluate your business messaging against these 4 criteria:
    • What are we telling our current and future employees about who we are and how we do things?
    • What is their experience against our messaging once they step inside?
    • How are we contributing to the greater environment that we engage with (customers, suppliers, the environment, nation building, etc)?
    • What opportunities do the individuals in our business have for THEIR development goals?
  4. Earnestly educate your entire organisation, especially those who have the ability to influence the environment, about all of the above. Once you’ve done that, put the way you do business – your structure, your strategy, your systems, and your processes – onto a clean table and honestly evaluate them. Begin a process of making changes where necessary.
  5. Contact TomorrowToday in South Africa or the United Kingdom to come in and chat further about what you’ve just read, and why it struck a chord with you. We’d love the opportunity, even if its just for us to learn a little more about what you’re struggling with?

Barrie Bramley is a founding partner of TomorrowToday and works in our talent development’ research team. He is a strength-perspective evangelist and invites you to engage him in further conversation. He can be e-mailed on barrie@tomorrowtoday.co.za.

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