The trouble with talent is… identifying it

In her first column for Elite Business, co-founder of The Curve Group, Lyndsey Simpson, explores how an employer can identify the talent required to take their business to the next level

The trouble with talent is… identifying it

Let’s get something cleared up from the off. Why am I suggesting in the title of this column that talent is trouble? Well, honestly, it is. Talented individuals have spikes in their genius, highs and lows in their personalities and needs, and can sometimes be as easy to manage as nailing jelly to a wall. So why do we all talk about it, crave it in our businesses and, as the media will often suggest we are doing, actually enter into a ‘war for talent’? Simply put, having the right individuals in your business is the difference between mediocre and exceptional performance.

So, starting with the obvious: how do you identify talent? That is a simple question, but not so simple an answer.

In some large organisations, it is all about leadership. Talent is therefore defined as someone who still has a minimum of two vertical moves up the organisation in them – i.e. they haven’t reached their potential yet. In other companies, talent is all about the here and now and depicts top performers who are rated in the top 5% of the role they are doing. Others simply define it as ‘people with the right stuff’ or ‘a go-getter attitude’. They will say things like ‘you’ll know talent when you see it’. Personally, I believe only you, in the context of your business, in the even narrower context of specific roles, can define what talent means to you and your organisation.


Busting the myth

There are two components of talent: capability (which looks at future potential) and ability (which looks at current performance). You can define and measure them both, but the key word to consider when starting on this journey is context. Someone who is a talented singer does not necessarily make a talented pianist. However, in the world of offices and businesses, there is a misconception that someone who is rated as ‘talent’ in one organisation and role will be as effective in a different organisation and different role. This is simply not true.  

Context plays a massive part in both providing the conditions talent needs to thrive and the definition of what success looks like. So what could talent mean to you? If you are a B2B sales organisation, for your graduate recruitment, talent could be someone who has the potential to reach senior management within five years. They will have strong innate leadership and relationship skills to lead teams in the future and a bright commercial aptitude, which will put them on the path to managing some of your largest customer relationships. However, if you are a design company, your definition of graduate talent could be completely different. It may be someone who has advanced problem-solving skills, an ability to match a customer need with a physical and inventive product solution. They may also self-educate themselves around latest design theory and would have the ambition to build new products that create new markets. In this instance, their leadership skills, commercial aptitude and relationship skills do not feature in a wish list categorising what you would class as ‘talent’.

So your first task as a business owner or leadership team is working through the key groups of roles in your business and defining what talent means to you. When you have this definition, it makes identifying talent and the places you are going to look for it a hundred times easier. It also means that when you do meet people, you have a clear framework and definition to assess against, removing the gut feeling and subjectivity that often surrounds hiring in the early stages of a start-up or fast growth business.


Defining ‘potential’

Organisations often focus purely on identifying and hiring external talent rather than looking at current employees and assessing them against the same definitions or frameworks. If we go back to the two components of talent – capability and ability – ability is usually assessed and captured via performance appraisals but it’s rare that capability is focused on as routinely.

The word ‘potential’ is used to suggest that the individual has the qualities required to perform and contribute in a larger or different role in the organisation in the future. These qualities could relate to their skills, motivation, commitment, experiences, personal characteristics, or abilities. It goes without saying that identifying the people – both internal and external to your organisation – who have the greatest potential will inevitably maximise your future organisational success.

But, as always, the devil is in the detail. The question you need to ask yourself is ‘potential for what exactly’? Just as I believe you need to define what talent means to you in the context of your company and roles, you need to put the precisely same amount of effort into defining what potential means. 

And this again will not be one generic definition that applies to everyone. You are likely to end up with groups of talent pools. These could be based on seniority so, for example, ‘emerging talent’ would apply to more junior levels and ‘high potential talent’ would describe senior employees who are on the path to board positions. Alternatively, they could be function-based talent pools: marketing talent, HR talent, finance talent, sales talent and so on and so forth.

With talent loosely defined as someone having the ability and capability to do something well, it is up to you to take that loose criteria forward into a meaningful framework for the key parts of your business. If you are a business where people are your greatest asset, the focus and results you will receive from spending the time and energy defining what talent and potential mean to you will pay back exponentially. 

Lyndsey Simpson
Lyndsey Simpson

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