What is Talent? (Talent Development for HR Folks)


"What is talent?" I asked a room full of mid level managers.

"Something you are good at," some said. Other responses were "something you are passionate about, something you enjoy doing, something others say you are good at." One person even chimed in "the people that work for you."

From the look on my face, they could tell they were close to the answer, but not exactly what I wanted to hear. This misdefinition (yes, I just made that word up,) of talent is the key reason many people are not living up to their full potential, and why companies are not getting the best of their employees. The confusion over the definition of talent is not new. There are five schools of thought on how talent is viewed:

  1. Talent as giftedness: How you are naturally wired.
  2. Talent as strength: What you have developed.
  3. Talent as meta-competency: Advanced skills that aid development of other abilities.
  4. Talent as high potential: Possibilities that lie within you.
  5. Talent as high performance: What you actually do.

In the talent/strengths world, we describe this as the tension on the "nature-nurture tension."

Talent encompasses all five descriptions, but the KEY qualifier for talent is that it has to be an ability you are born with. It starts as a gift and through development, it is developed into a strength. What you believe about talent will determine how you lead your workforce. Let's explore how each view determines this.

Talent as Giftedness:

If you view talent as innate, you will see every team member as very talented. You may be thinking to yourself "Joe, talented? Yeah right." Well, Joe (or whoever came to your mind) is talented. The problem normally is that the person (Joe) has not discovered what their talents are. If you are a leader or Human Resource team member, you will bring immense value to your organization by encouraging everyone to discover what their talents are, and figure out how they can be used at work; in the same job or a different position.

Talent as a Strength:

If you view talent as a strength, you will tend to notice and recognize employees who have discovered and developed their talents. It is important to recognize these folks and give them the responsibilities for which they are suited; they will be your shining stars. The downside, if not consciously countered, is that you may see these folks as the only ones with talent. You always have three groups of people when it comes to talent at work; those who have not discovered their talent, those who have discovered their talents but not developed them (or have no way of using them at work,) and those who have discovered and developed their talents into strengths. As you cheer the star performers, keep working on the rest of the bench.

Talent as Meta-competency:

Meta-competencies are advanced skills that aid development of other abilities. They include the ability to learn, adapt, anticipate, and create change. If you view talent as a meta-competency, you will see only the early adopters on your team as talented. There are many other factors that facilitate quick learning, adaptation etc., but I will say that we learn fastest in the area of our talent. A person with 3-dimensional thinking talent will understand engineering concepts faster than someone without that talent. A process oriented thinker will grasp a big picture vision slower than a futuristic thinker. Unfortunately, the process/logical thinkers are sometimes thought of as negative because they ask questions that bring everyone back to reality.

Talent as High Potential:

Everyone has high potential in their area of talent. The problem in the work environment is that high potential is often seen through the lens of what an employee has on their resume or a skill they have acquired. Resumes are a chronicle of our work history. If an employee has sought jobs just for the sake of getting a pay increase or because they kept getting tired of their past companies or jobs, you may be looking at the wrong potential. The fact that I do something well does not necessarily mean I enjoy it or that I want to be developed further in that area. Talent is high potential only after we have identified what the individuals talents are.

Talent as High Performance:

Every leader wants high performers on their team, and they rightly should. I will not intentionally pay for an average meal or show; I want the best. We reward high performers because they meet and exceed the goals and objectives set by the organization. Which leads to organizational success. The problem sometimes, is that the performance is based on an acquired skill. The performer for the sake of surviving at work, will do all they can to excel. If they are not performing from their talent, they will burnout. Many companies do not care if an ability is a skill or a talent for an employee; all they want are results.

The Balanced Approach to Talent Development

The best way to view talent is by recognizing that everyone has talent. Most people have as many as 7 talents. Like one prospecting for gold or oil, we must start with the fundamental premise that talent exists in all. With this as our foundation, it is becomes easier to encourage team members to discover their talents. If you are in HR, you should be thinking about how to help employees discover their talents. Discourage team members from developing a professional development plan if they have not discovered their talents. How can you develop a person if they do not know their innate abilities? Acquiring skill will be helpful in the short term, and we see this often in the workplace. Here's a simple 3-Step approach to harnessing talent:

  1. DISCOVER: Help them unearth what lies within.
  2. DEVELOP: Now they are in a good position to create a development plan.
  3. DEPLOY: It becomes easier to place people in the right roles at work. Productivity is high.


This article is written based on a research paper by Meyers, M.C., et al., Talent — Innate or acquired? Theoretical considerations and their implications for talent management, Human Resource Management Review (2013), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.hrmr.2013.05.003



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