Talent Is The Problem

(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".


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I thought to myself as I read your great piece John that the same might be said about sourcing - everyone has a theory but nobody really seems to have a definition!

Other nomers for "talent" might include:
Worker Bee
Individual Contributor
Indian (not Indian Chief)
Grunt

Whatever you want to call them, the word "work" oughtta' be inextricably entwined.
"Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work. " ~ Thomas Edison
It's interesting to try to have a conversation when the comments are in two different places.

Isn't it interesting that "Talent Acquisition" says nothing about the whole person. "We buy talent" has very serious overtones of a different form of employee ownership; the kind where employees are owned. Worse, the term suggests that the only employees worth owning are those with specialized roles and abnormal capabilities.

I am concerned that we are seriously marginalizing the people who either don't have or don't think they have "talent".

Maureen's quote is dead on. We're dealing with the remnants of the bubble economy here. The idea that a group of people with high potential are entitled to be the sole object of our Recruiting Programs is crazy. 'A' players are not very useful unless they are surrounded by competent 'B' and 'C' players.
John, excellent post. The issue manifests itself in so many vagaries: hire the best, A players, game changeres, etc. The powers that be that run with these mantras aren't clear on what defines the term, and be the time a recruiter gets ahold of it, it's even more oblique, like a phrase passed around in the telephone game. Sometimes the value we add as recruiters is helping to define the actual need and the right candidate based on that need. It's recruiter 101, but that's why it's a fundamental.

Also, any plans to get back up to Minnesota?
Sumser declares Jihad against the term "Talent". I like it. It is a demeaning term and is often used for just that purpose.

The new century has quickly worn off some of the awe reserved for the managing class. Hardly a worker's paradise in the making, but I'm glad to see the dignity of honest work coming back into style, no matter what kind of work it may be.
John,

I think from an organizational perspective, talent can be defined as “the ability to do really well what you ask the person to do.” My friend who runs a manufacturing facility is going to assess talent differently than I will while recruiting for the software company that employs me. Isn’t that what we are all trying to do in recruiting? Find someone who is really good at doing what we or our client is going to ask them to do?
You know, Sandra, that's exactly why I think the term "Talent" is a carryover from the bubble economy. In the pursuit of fast money, we forgot the fundamentals. It's not just the housing market, the financial institutions and the unemployed, it's all of us.

We got caught believing that you could make the world different by changing its name. That money grew on trees and that everyone had talent. We were just channeling Andy Warhol's dream. And now, the 15 minutes are up.

Lots of things got hyperinflated and it's time to return to simpler views. If you haven't seen Just Work, it bears a scan. We're returning to simpler, earlier values.

I'm particularly interested in the generational implications. From my perspective, Gen Y is clearly focused on making a contribution, not getting recognized. Somehow, the edge of HR evolved into a mindset of entitlement for a special few. Accountability, transparency and measurable ideas are making a comeback.
Norm Augustine is famous for saying things like "If the Earth could be made to rotate twice as fast, managers would get twice as much done. If the Earth could be made to rotate twenty times as fast, everyone else would get twice as much done since all the managers would fly off." He'd think this whole conversation about 'Talent' was silly.

When we use doublespeak to talk about important things, the important things don't get done.
I've had arguments with my HR people about my inability to consistently hire A grade players. My response, how can anyone have teams and teams of those supposed A grade people? I don't want to... Cultural fits, with adequate skills, and an aptitude to learn, who will just get through all the work are also needed, if not more so than the others. Those high flying, high potential, golden people, won't want to do the boring mundane stuff, involved in every job. Yet it still needs to be done doesn't it? So agreed, TALENT = over rated
Nobody in the game of football should be called a genius. A genius is somebody like Norman Einstein.
- Joe Theismann

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