Redefining Talent


In business, an employee with “Talent” is not a rare find and there seems to be a consensus within organisations about what “the best people” who work for you look like. Identifying top performers within your ranks is fairly easy. Talent could mean anything from: having effective communication skills, a customer focus, leadership qualities, sound decision making skills, deep expertise and business acumen, to being innovative and creative. Generally, HR and managers consider anyone who meets and exceeds the basic competencies set for a specific job or role to be “Talented”.

Traditionally, HR has structured Talent Management practices around this model: recruit, retain, reward and develop high potential or high performing individuals.  Furthermore, talent management as a planning strategy is a continuous process and needs to link to business strategy to improve business value toward attainment of organisational goals. Workforce planning is used to project future needs and to prioritise key jobs and skills. This is where the problem lies. By combining all previous independent HR functions (recruiting programmes, reward and compensation and development programmes) into one integrated system and calling it “Talent Management” has not made any real significant difference in “people management”. It is merely “workforce planning and management”. Effective Talent management starts with the premise that managing talent is an essential part of any businesses success and must be a continuous process embedded within all managerial practices and processes. By embedding people management processes into standard business processes you force line managers to think of recruiting, retention, development, etc. as essential activities that make a significant contribution to any manager’s business results and success. Once managers begin to realise that they cannot reach their output goals without effective talent management/people processes, they then commit more of their own time and resources into the recruiting, development, and retention of their talent.

Fixed vs Growth Mindset

So how do we go about embedding people management processes throughout the organisation to manage our talent? Since Talent Management is within itself forward-looking, it makes sense to understand that we need to move from a “fixed mindset” to a “growth mindset”. Leading authority on this concept is Carol Dweck (Prof. of Psychology at Stanford Uni) who explains her discovery of “fixed vs growth mindsets” as:

“In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success – without effort. In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work – brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment”. (Mindset)

Now let’s apply this concept to the organisational hive mind. Organisations who embrace a growth mindset have employees reporting that they feel more empowered and committed. They also receive greater organisational support for collaboration and innovation. “In contrast, people at primarily fixed mindset companies report more of only one thing: cheating and deception among employees, presumably to gain an advantage in the talent race”. (What having a growth mindset actually means. Jan 2016) We’d like to take this concept a step further and look at our understanding of talent itself. Talent is viewed as natural ability or superior skill sets that an individual possesses. In essence, there is a “fixed” quality in our perception of talent. But if we understand that talent is not just a static ability or skills that can be developed, and instead realise then that, rather; an individual’s real talent is having a growth mindset. People who want to collaborate, who love challenges and want to learn, and who don’t just believe they are more talented than others (which actually hinders their own personal growth and affinity for learning), are the real star performers. And growth mindset managers themselves seek out and value potential in others, as well as capacity, and don’t merely reward results or effort; but nurture processes where even risk taking, lessons learned, and progress towards goals is valued.

A good place to start

Therefore, in the process of managing talent, rather than looking at talent as fixed qualities, look for the underlying behaviours behind high potential. Identifying characteristics and behaviours in individuals with a more growth mindset are easier than one might think e.g look for positive attitudes, collaboration and admission of mistakes, entrepreneurial spirit, and willingness to learn among others. Instead of praising top “talent” or top performers on jobs well done, managers should take opportunities to learn and coach others on people’s strengths; to delve deeper into the reasons behind an individual’s success. Try some of the following:

  1. Instead of complimenting someone on a job well done, ask them to share how they did it: their process. Insights here could be applied to other tasks and perhaps even used to train others.
  2. Truly value individual’s contributions. Performance assessments to measure achievement of goals are fine, however they should be coupled with an interview into the particular way of the person’s thinking and habits, and value these habits by nurturing an environment and processes that will encourage and reward similar behaviour towards reaching goals.
  3. As a growth-mindset manager, find out the reasons behind your teams’ preferences.e., which project characteristics are the root sources of fulfilment and satisfaction. This kind of knowledge helps a manager strategically match an employee with a project, taking into account both the essence of the work and the essence of the individual rather than just the category or domain where there appears to be a synergy.
  4. Encourage people. Look within people and value their different perceptions and strengths. Actively grow their talents by understanding that talents are not a set of fixed abilities.

We need to rethink the way we have been categorising, labelling and identifying talent and managing it, otherwise we risk losing the essence of the individual. Caught up in all the conundrum between analysing HR metrics, competency models, KPIs, performance measurements and strategy alignment we have forgotten that each individual has dreams and aspirations. If we want to capitalise on individuals’ strengths, then we need to embed people management throughout our Talent Management processes, which will increase organisational resilience and agility tenfold. We merely need to take a closer look at how a person behaves and learns; and to what extent they try to grow themselves. Perhaps the real talent is having a “growth mindset”.