How to define talent – moving from delusional to data-driven practices Written by Katrin Homer

22nd May 2017

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Recently, the latest UK unemployment figures were published: The BBC reported that unemployment has fallen to 4.6%, its lowest in 42 years.

The story is not entirely positive, as British pay growth lagged inflation for the first time in two-and-a-half years, but there is a trend, here as well as across the pond, to lower unemployment.

The previous week, the Washington Post reported that unemployment dropped to its lowest rate in a decade. The UK and the U.S. job markets appear stronger than they have been in years.

The war for talent is on

That’s great news for job seekers and not such great news for employers who are struggling to fill key positions with the right talent or retain talent that might be ready to fly, given the right opportunity.

Did you know for instance, that 75% of employed people are considered passive job seekers? These are people that aren’t actively looking for another job, but they’re hoping that an offer will be coming along.

But what is talent anyway, I wonder …

  • How do you define talent?
  • How do you find the right talent?
  • And how do you retain talent?

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In this and two future blog posts I’d like to answer these three questions with the help of the recently published ‘The Talent Delusion – Why Data, Not Intuition, is the Key to Unlocking Human Potential’. The Talent Delusion is a data- rather than intuition-driven book written by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, which has helped me significantly in my quest to understand the notion of talent.

A great new addition to the talent library

I don’t know about you, but for a long time in my career, talent seemed a woolly and non-transparent word. I remember some years ago having a conversation with a sales colleague in the staff canteen which circled around: What exactly does a talent manager do? Choose and develop talent, we supposed. But how is talent chosen within an organisation? Not sure …

And what happens to talent once they have been selected? Maybe some development program… And what is talent anyway? So many different books and articles define talent in so many different ways: High IQ, high EQ, resilient, strong leaders, brilliant networkers, individuals who forge strong relationships, who constantly strive for improvements and who always educate themselves further.

None of our answers were very definitive or succinct at the time which is why I loved the fact that Chamorro-Premuzic uses an entire chapter of ‘The Talent Delusion’ to define four rules for what talent actually is, and what’s more he does so in a very succinct manner indeed! Bingo! So here goes …

Four rules to define talent

  1. The Rule of the ‘Vital Few’
    The author defines talent by the vital few – think Pareto’s rule of 80/20. Pareto’s law of unequal distribution suggests that talent is not equally distributed in an organization. The author says that we live in a world of normal distributions but in terms of talent, ‘the far right end tail of the bell curve has far more impact than the 60-70 per cent of cases congregated under the main body of the bell’.
    Taking this argument further where the 80 per cent is broken down into two sub-groups, the book then presents how 20 per cent of the workforce are responsible for a staggering 80 per cent of output (see picture).
  2. The ‘Maximum Performance’ Rule
    Talent sets the upper limits to maximum performance, revealing the best you can do when you’re trying to do your best. Chamorro-Premuzic says that the more motivated employees are, the less their typical and maximum performance will differ.‘To a large degree, our personality determines how frequently we will try to engage in maximum performance efforts.

This explains why ethical employees, who are more self-disciplined and conscientious, tend to perform to their maximum level more often.’He carries on to state that employees with high recognition and achievement needs tend to have higher standards and again perform at their best more often.Studies also suggest that a higher degree of openness to new experiences in people, a trait related to higher curiosity and inquisitiveness, is also correlated to a person’s maximum performance.

3. The ‘Effortless Performance’ Rule
This rule suggests that talent is effortless performance. So if you take two people who perform to the same level, the more talented individual has exerted less effort to reach that level.‘If something comes very easily to you, then you are probably talented at it – or at least you have the potential to develop those talents faster than others.’So the formula of ‘Talent = Performance – Effort’ can be very useful for working out what your talents are.

4. The ‘Personality in the Right Place’ Rule
The fourth way of defining talent is to think of it as personality in the right place. By ‘personality’, Chamorro-Premuzic means an individual’s typical tendencies, including their values, interests, skills and natural behavioral patterns – ‘in other words, everything we normally mean when we talk about what a particular person is like’.If and when these qualities are matched to the right task, context or environment, ‘they will represent important career weapons for the individual as well as crucial performance drivers for the organization’.Talented individuals seek out environments that make their personalities assets rather than hindrances because they know that their natural behavioral tendencies will be an asset with regard to certain jobs, but not others.

Managers, HR professionals and organizations have some responsiblity to help their employees find the job that is fully relevant to the individual, and it seems in my experience that this often doesn’t happen. I think the main reason for this is that many times they simply don’t know what individuals are really like – they don’t understand their values, their preferences and their drivers. They might not have asked them enough questions or have gathered enough data through questionnaires or assessments. And that, surely, in our increasingly data-driven world, should be an easy first task on the quest for talent.

In April, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic was interviewed by HBR IdeaCast so if you’d like to get a broader understanding of his book and work, that’s a great place to go.

Watch this space and read more on how you find the right talent in my next blog post. Thanks for reading!

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