8 Attributes of Transformational Talent

Recently a co-worker told me about one of his hiring managers.  This leader wanted to see industry profiles of talent that could potentially meet the future needs of the organization.  Having limited information around the attributes, skills or experience needed for this exercise and armed with several target companies. My colleague worked for a few weeks to turn up the best profiles that matched the leaders’ very loose description.  When it came time to review the profiles with the leader, the leader stated that none of the profiles fit the mold and that she wanted transformational talent for her organization.  Part of this is the classic hiring strategy of “I’ll know what I want when I see it” mixed with a little of “I need someone just like me”.  My colleague wasn't exactly sure what that was and the leader couldn't define either.

This is one example of the type of request talent acquisition professionals are receiving from hiring managers. You may not be in talent acquisition but might be in the position of hiring or a leader of an organization. I can imagine you're not immune from this type of request from your manager or company board.

So what is transformational talent? And how do you hire for it?

Please note during this post, I’ll use talent and skill interchangeably

I posed this question internally at Microsoft, in several online forums and interviewed several people who have the responsibility of hiring transformational talent. It's no surprise that almost all of the answers were different. However, there were some major themes that started to develop during my quasi-research. In this post, I'll attempt to aggregate all of the findings into a several attributes that may help shed light on the definition.

Some Context

It's been a little over a year since the new CEO of Microsoft Satya Nadella took the reins and set out on the mission of transforming the company. Since then Microsoft has definitely gone through a significant transformation.  It's visible from how we deliver products across platforms (e.g. iOS, Android, and Linux) to the market with delighting customers as our guiding light. The new cultural norms like OneWeek and developing a hacker mindset. OneWeek is where the entire company comes together and hacks anything & everything with the goals of improving the products delivered to our customers and/or internal processes that ultimately support the goal of delighting customers (nothing is off limits).  Leadership transparency and the understanding of the company's strategic direction has improved significantly with monthly town hall style meetings.  I can confidently say things have changed and are still shifting in a very positive direction. I've been here for almost a decade, yet it feels like I've been working for a different company over the last year.

Like with any transformation, at any company. The company's' leader sets a direction and tries to manage change to that direction. This is done with hopes that the employees with follow suite thus helping the company transform the way things are done and feel.  At a high level, it can be an entire company strategic direction change or a new appointed leader creating new norms or a segment of the business changing directions just to name a few.  Transformative leaders help guide employees to dig deep within themselves in order to change behaviors to the new behaviors that align with the new company direction thus changing the culture. I like to refer to it as breaking cultural norms in order to evolve them.  Employees that resist or don't do well with change typically don't survive in these large transformational shifts and end up leaving the company or may be asked to leave.

During Microsoft's transformation, the request for transformational talent and transformational leadership has been at the forefront of almost every people discussion.  I started hearing the request for transformational talent more frequently about 10 months ago and the demand has just increased.  On indeed.com over 24,000 jobs either have transformation experience requested or advertise that their environment or product is transformative.  Whether it's the environment or a requested as an attribute of a person, the need for this type of talent is evident.  The problem is no one to my knowledge has defined it.  As an Executive Recruiter, understanding how to define transformation leadership and talent almost seems essential.  I say this because in Global Executive Talent Acquisition we are charged with being change agents. Identifying trends in the market, educating and influencing the people strategy for our business whenever possible.  That means our work is in the transformation business. Helping the company evolve to a future state by recruiting forward thinking leaders.


So What is Transformational Talent?

First let’s define transformation.

Definition according to Merriam-Webster dictionary

Transformation: an act, process, or instance of transforming or being transformed

Definition according to www.dictionary.com

Transformation: change in form, appearance, nature, or character.

Transformational (something that transforms something else) refers to an experiences, People (like a baby), religious & spiritual events, attributes, environment & habitats, rules or policies, behavior, words, literature, etc. and the list goes on and on of the things that can transform. 

Considering that just about anything can be transformational, does that mean that any talent or skill can be transformational?

Do some people have regular talent and others transformational talent?  If so, why?

Simply Answer is YES and NO.  People have talent (innate and acquired).  I believe some people are more talented in areas than others but it's the same type of talent.  For instance, you can be very skilled at dancing but someone can be even more skilled in many forms of dancing.  Someone else may be exceptional at multiple dance forms, acting, and singing. Broadway here we come. 

HERE'S THE THING… some people understand how to take advantage of multiple skills to drive different outcomes, think transformative… AND some people are just better doing this than others.  It's just like innovating. Using the same inventions (adding to or combining) that's been around for years to create something different.

Rick Tetzeli wrote in the latest addition of Fast Company in his piece on Steve Jobs that "Most "new" technologies are really new combinations of independent technologies that when put together create a new capability by virtue of their synergies".

Our talents operate in the same way. It's rare that one talent by itself will be transformational with the exception of storytelling.  The power of storytelling has inspired since the beginning of time and will continue to do so all by itself.  I find it hard to think of other talents that have this type of transformational power alone.  Please weigh into the comments if you can think of some.  Oh, just thought of another, Music. For other talents, when two or more talents are combined (e.g. storytelling, visionary, and natural leader) transformative things can happen. You'll notice in the example I used storytelling, visionary, and natural leader.  It's hard to be a visionary without the skill of storytelling.  It's hard to be a leader without the skill of storytelling. What about customer focused, it's hard to be customer focused without understanding the stories from the world in which our customers live in. Not to mention the stories of how they use your product or service.  It's hard to be…. you get my point. Storytelling mixed with almost any talent can be transformational. Enough about storytelling in this post, you can read more about that subject HERE (Storytelling, It's a Recruiters Job).


8 Attributes of Transformational Talent

 1.     Incrementalist

Incrementalist understand that small iterations of change lead to long term transformations.  This approach allows one to learn from past mistakes and use the learnings in the next iteration. Satya Nadella refers to it as “transforming while performing”.  People who manage change incrementally are known as thoughtful and accountable decision makers that usually have a better chance of bring others along.

"The real trick is to balance that incremental improvement with some big steps" -Steve Jobs

 2.     Life Learner

Life Learners are curious and always seem to be evolving.  They have the ability to transform themselves and are always seeking new challenges that will stretch their capability. Life Learners are pros at synthesizing and can transfer understanding from multiple experiences to others and job performance. These individuals are very creative, flexible in their thinking thus always forming new ideas. Not to mention Life Learners are GREAT LISTENERS.

 3.     Customer Focused

People who are customer focused have a keen sense of how their customers and potentials customers perceive their brand, products and/or service.  If they don't have this data, typically before any major decisions are made, they work desperately to understand the perspective of their customer base.  Customer focused people leverage the feedback mechanisms and make data driven decisions.  Growth Hackers are a great example of customer focused people who make a living understanding the customers and how to acquire more. 


I had the privilege of working with some great people over my career. One in particular is a guy by the name of Rich Walker. Rich Walker was a General Manager at Microsoft and one of the founding members of the Retail Stores Division.  Whenever Rich was in meetings at the leadership team. He made it a point to in an extra chair and sometimes two. People would ask who the chairs are for. He would tell them without blinking, it's for the customers and our associates in the store. You see regardless of internal or external customers, Rich personified the concept of customer focused and was committed about making sure the customer’s viewpoint was always considered. 

 4.     Outcomes Focused

Outcome focused people care about the outcome more than the credit, it's all about results.  They are decisive and calculated risk takers, always aiming for the best possible outcome. For them, it's about the best idea from anywhere or anyone that will have the greatest impact to the mission.

 5.     Collaborative

Collaborators understand the importance and value of team work. Bringing multiple people who may be talented in different areas to create an energy and outcome that can't be generated alone. They value diverse perspectives and working styles in which they view as opportunities to broaden their perspective.

 6.     Storyteller

A storyteller takes in life experiences and has the ability to create a narrative that can inspire, Influence, set vision, tell a point of view, and transform.

I like this quote by James Whittaker

“Storytelling, good storytelling, is the one skill that can even the playing field. Nothing else can draw attention to the human condition or to a good cause. When storytelling is absent, the merits of a cause, no matter how important, go unnoticed and unappreciated. You see, it doesn’t matter what you know, what you have or what you need if you can’t convey it to anyone else.”

  7.     Courage to Compete

People with courage to compete have a "Challenger Mindset".  Whether against competition or the status quo, they stay in the mindset that they need to continue to innovate.  If they don't someone else will and they can easily be replaced.  Respectfully pushing the envelope in order to push the team or organization to achieve more.  They have the desire and courage to challenging conventional thinking. These type of people don't rest on their laurels because of past achievements.

 8.     Natural Leaders

Whether leading people or not. Natural leaders standout and transform those around them by inspiring with many of the aforementioned attributes. They understand how to make personal connections and that transforming oneself is where you start.

My colleague Heather puts it this way "Pushing and growing as an individual’s…seeking new challenges and opportunities to stretch. When hiring leaders, it is about finding leaders that not only want to transform themselves personally and professionally, but also transform those they are leading. Helping and inspiring their teams to grow and ensuring they are ready for the next steps in their careers." - Heather Parrot


Where to Find Transformational Talent

 Finding transformation talent is easier than you may think.  I would suggest starting with the employees in your company today.  It may only take the right role, the right leader, or the act of simply empowering them to unleash hidden talents.  Take off the handcuffs and give them room to excel on their own merits. That’s the promise that’s made to your employees by the company that’s trying to recruit them away.  These companies ask them to come and take on big challenges the way they want. Have the room to exercise, test, and push their experience without the fear of failing.  If you don’t give your people these opportunities, they most likely will leave and become someone else’s transformational talent.

Thoughts and feedback, please comment below. AND if you enjoyed the post, please click the thumbs up icon above and let me know!

Follow me on Twitter at @chrisbrecruits

The views expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author(s) and do not reflect the views of my employer.

Special Thanks to the following for being a part of my research.

Heather Parrot, Francisco Caldas, Ana Ruano, Emma KnightsKeith Ong

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