What Is Talent?

Nov 15, 2005

About once a year I get the feeling that we aren’t making any progress in really improving our approaches to acquiring and retaining talent. Perhaps part of this discouragement arises because neither recruiters nor managers have put much rigor into defining what we mean when we talk about the quality of our employees. We bandy about the term “talent,” and yet we have no real definition of it. For many recruiters, talent is synonymous with “anyone who says yes.”

But what I mean by “talent” are those employees whose contributions are vital to our ability to produce our products or deliver our services. If we were to compare our firms to sports teams, I think we could understand talent better. When a sports manager speaks of talent, he is talking about those individuals on any team who score the points or block the other team from scoring points themselves, or who the fans and players identify as essential for success. Companies like Cisco Systems operate not unlike sports teams, in that they actually quantify the contribution individuals make to the sales and profit of the company. They know that above average performers generate more sales than average performers. McKinsey, in its Talent War 2000 study, has also documented this. Those surveyed by McKinsey were asked to assess how much more a high performer in a profit and loss position generates than a mid-range performer. They estimated the difference at 49 percent, and they concluded that the high performer should be paid 42 percent more for these results.

When you think about what 49% means, it is astounding. That means a high performer brings in almost twice as much business as an average performer or produces twice as much. If you as a recruiter could identify potential high performers, how much more bonus do you think you would get? How much better would your reputation be? If we were really serious about looking for talent, here are some of the things we would be doing as recruiters and as human resources professionals:

  1. We would work harder than we do at identifying high performers. Together with high performers themselves, we could establish some indicators of success or of high performance for each position we recruit for. These could be the number of sales they have made in a month, the number of reports they have written that resulted in consulting assignments, the amount of revenue their group has generated, and so forth. This is hard work though. There aren’t a lot of benchmarks to go by, but we all know more or less who contributes the most to our organizations. Our task is to quantify those contributions.
  2. We would work with managers to develop profiles of the high performers in each group. We would try to find commonalities and things we could identify during the screening process that might predict success. These could be competencies, activities high performers engage in, work methods, or processes. There are many firms that can help you determine what these “critical success factors” are and even help you develop tests to identify them in candidates.
  3. We would find out where potential high performers like to go and what they like to do. This step allows you to target your advertising toward high performers and decide which events are worth attending so that you can get at the kinds of people you seek. Doing this well requires a focus on competitive intelligence, or “CI.” CI is well known in the industrial world; many companies employ CI experts to ferret our information about production capacities and equipment installations at their competitors. The same principles apply to recruiting. You can gather information from competitors and from vendors and suppliers about where good people may be located. You can certainly use your employee referral program for the same purpose.
  4. Every time we actually find a person with the right profile and skill set, we would ask them where more people like them are. One of the most useful ways to collect information is to ask incoming new hires for referrals and for general information. Tools like ZoomInfo can help, as can various websites that are provided for free by the U.S. government. These include the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the National Census Bureau.
  5. We would do a better job of collecting and capturing critical information about candidates. The knowledge you gradually accumulate is valuable and should be put into some sort of database where it can be shared with other recruiters. A blog or a wiki can form the basis on an internal or external community of recruiters where this kind of information can be exchanged. This is a form of knowledge sharing and transfer that, when properly done, can save thousands of hours of work and bunches of money. After all, headhunters rely on their own human knowledge management systems (i.e. their brains) to do this all the time. Our challenge is to make this more broadly accessible and to keep it current.
  6. Finally, we would recognize the importance of developing people so that they can become high performers. The recruiting function has to move toward becoming more like a talent agency — something it has not been historically. Talent agencies not only recognize talent but also develop it for strategic purposes. We as recruiters need to take our knowledge of what talent looks like and offer people who have “it” a chance to acquire the skills they need to perform the jobs we have. Mostly this will apply to our current employee populations, but it could also apply to people outside as well. The only limits are our own vision and our ability to work within the politics of our corporate environments. One way to find those with talent would be to open all of our screening processes to anyone and then select those who seem likely to be successful. The Internet and our recruiting websites make this very easy to do. The development side could take the form of classroom training, e-learning, internships, action (work-based) learning assignments, or special programs that train a group of people for specific jobs within a company.

The key is that recruiting is not only about finding talent, but also, increasingly, about developing it. If we are to move our profession upwards and start making real contributions to the bottom line, these things I have described are what it is going to take.

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