The war is not to find talent; it’s to use the talent you have already.

The search for talent is ongoing. Individuals seek to develop their talents, companies seek to identify talent and retain it, succession planning requires it, politicians plan for it, and the world wants to find it. But what is it?

I was having dinner at a friend’s home and the subject came up because their 11 year old son had recently brought home his school report card which stated from his art teacher: “[His] talent is yet to be fully developed.” His mother, always one for a quick tongue responded “His only talent is making excuses for not doing his homework.”

The young boy sat at the table grimacing and whilst his mum meant it in jest, there was an element of truth in it. I said “I see a glittering future as a political spin-doctor.” The boy’s eyes lit up. This so-called talent had a purpose.

The word “talent” is bandied around for so many things and we don’t always truly understand what is meant by “talent”. So to the trusty dictionary…

Talent: innate mental or artistic aptitude (as opposed to acquired ability); less than genius.

So what is innate?

Innate: existing in one from birth; inborn; native: innate musical talent.

Now, my core business is experiential training and a behaviouralist, so if talent cannot be acquired… Better find a better definition…

Talent: natural ability to do something well.

‘That nasty word ‘natural’

Natural: based on the state of things in nature; constituted by nature: Growth is a natural process.

The Thesaurus, always illuminating, and find ‘talent’ associated with words like’ability’, ‘ ‘adeptness’, ‘adroitness’, ‘charisma’, ‘facility’, ‘gift’, ‘knack’, ‘wisdom’, ‘gumption’, ‘capacity’, ‘brilliance’ and ‘genius’

Is it seems that you are either born with a talent or not. No acquiring a talent, developing it certainly, but if the foundation is not there…

Companies seek ‘talent’ for succession planning, as do politicians. It is most often associated with leadership or management ‘talent’.

Companies are also hooked on retaining talent. And surely that’s right, once you have talent in your organisation, you really don’t want to lose it. Many, inspired by a Mckinnsey article in 1997 “The War for Talent” took this to extreme, indulging ‘talent’ and doing everything they could to keep them engaged, satisfied, even delighted. Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point, wrote an article in the New Yorker magazine in 2002 entitled “The Talent Myth”. By then the whole ‘War for talent’ was under a dark, ominous cloud called Enron. The McKinssey article had, after all, been largely based on what Enron was doing at the time and how everybody should emulate it.

The trouble is that ‘talent’ is most often ascribed to the very brightest, highly motivated individuals who are very driven. And being bright (intelligent) does not, necessarily, mean talent. Being ‘driven’ is not the only criteria for success.

I have met and worked with many talented individuals. In fact, I believe that every single person has talent. What that talent is and how it can be used by companies is another matter.

If we accept that talent is something that you are born with, surely we need to know how do we identify talent, and how do we leverage that talent?

Identifying talent

I've seen this in many organisations. The brightest and best are identified as part of the talent pool – there’s some fanfare, a suite of training programs, perhaps MBAs are taken and the talent are promoted. Meanwhile, the non-talent morale has sunk, many have quit or actively seeking new positions, commitment has dropped and performance suffered. The talent, being highly driven, take this upon themselves and make up for the loss, working extra hard and many burning out. There follows a new initiative to regain the work-life balance and a big drive to retain talent.

An alternative

We can talk to the existing talent – the best leaders, managers, the best individual contributors – not just from your own organisation but others too, and uncover their foundational talents that enable them to be all that they are. It really can be quite surprising:

There are many other examples, some obvious, many not. What is common to most of the people we have interviewed is that their talent itself is not what enables them to do what they do, it is – how they do the talent.

I suggest that we do something a little different. Why not find what the underlying and true individual’s talents are and then leverage them towards the leadership or management attributes you need? Or perhaps, we can identify their talent and find out where they best fit in your organisation and for some, outside it.

Leveraging Talent

Taking someone’s talent and leveraging it into the workplace requires a little creative thinking. Fortunately, creative thinking is something that we can develop. It’s part de Bono’s lateral thinking and part conceptual mapping. Some connections make absolute and logical sense, others require us to dig into the talent and how that talent is done by the individual.

Using the examples cited above, I shall briefly outline the main connections that the individual leveraged – either on their own ‘naturally’ or through coaching.

Find your talent and find a way to use it.

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