(April 03, 2009) I spent the first part of this week at the San Diego ERE Expo. It was an amazing get together with lots of interesting people. Everyone from the north and the east was celebrating the climate. It's not such a big thing for those of us who already live in paradise.
As I watched and listened, I started to realize that we're witnessing a sea change. Our little universe is transforming along with the rest of the economy. The blood is running in the streets so deeply that it sometimes obscures our view. Change is upon us.
Everywhere I went, people were talking about talent. No one had a definition of talent, they just talked about it. That's how it is in HR and Recruiting, people have long theoretical conversations without ever defining terms. Talent this, talent that, talent the other thing. No shared definition, lots and lots of generalizations.
It became clear to me that talent is code. It means "the best and the brightest" until you ask someone. I spent all day Monday asking people what talent was. The best I could get is the "it's something everyone has." "Bulls**t," I thought to myself.
It doesn't pass the Emma Sumser (she's my mom) test. If I tell her that everyone is talented, she's liable to say something like "That's why they're all on the Knicks" or "Hmmm, you handle that shovel like a ballerina" or "I guess I was dealing with the only untalented person in customer service yesterday."
Talent does not mean "everyone", it means "the best and the brightest." The War for Talent is not a war for everyone, it is a war for a specific class of people. The term, talent, demeans most people. They don't want to be lumped in with the class of people who enjoy being called "the best and the brightest".
Talent Management System is a misnomer. Those things manage people. Most people are not particularly talented.
The "Talented" ones have been allowed to operate unsupervised. The adults are coming. We've been celebrating innovation and creativity at the expense of good old fashioned hard work. Hard work is making a comeback; it's the new black. Just Work.
Here's the problem. You just don't want everyone in your organization to be talented. It's very likely the case that we are suffering from the fact that there were too many talented executives at AIG. The term "Talent" and all of the philosophy about managing this "scarce" commodity, is at the root of the misbehavior of the first part of this Century. People who are hired and coddled because they are "talent" do the stupid sorts of things that we've just witnessed.
The degree to which you need "talented" people is a function of your organization. R&D Centers need lots of innovation. McDonald's franchises need relatively little. In fact, most companies need very little talent. What they do need is persistent, hard-working, determined, honest people who bring all of their resources to bear on the job at hand.
I expect to see the term talent used less and less frequently. When you make it a question of "talent", you insult people who create value for a living; you demean the vast majority of people with jobs. Calling people "talent" is short sighted and demonstrates a failure to understand the problem. They are not "talent", they are "people".