DISCUSSION Talent isn’t a person so there is no point looking for them

by Yolanda Villafuerte _______28th June 2013
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by Grahame Broadbelt

We had a heartfelt email response from a very senior business leader who told us, in no uncertain terms, that the whole idea that talent is ubiquitous is nonsense. He had personally dedicated his life to finding the best people from across the planet to deliver results in his company and he was crystal clear that it is an increasingly tough search to find those diamonds in a sea of sand. Talent for him is very rare and very precious.

We have been hearing this for decades and it is time to stop listening to it and more importantly acting on it.

Let’s get a few things straight then we can move on to address the real problems.

Firstly the whole idea of ‘talent’ is rooted in the idea of scarcity; it is a problem which defines its own terms, it is circular. If you decide that the only people you want are the very rare people then you have a shortage of candidates. Mostly this is hiring by ego – we are the best we must have the best – and it is limiting the effective performance of many many organisations. Working out what organisations actually need (rather than want) is much more difficult to do. Most people are hugely under used by their employer; most organisations are useless at harnessing the talent they have.

Secondly, talent is in the eye of the beholder. It is a social construct designed to serve largely socio – political purposes. To understand how to harness the idea of talent for your organisation (or community or government or football team) you first need to understand yourself, your worldviews, personal politics and prejudices. Our current expression of talent as a problem is an interior one not an exterior one. Watch Channel 4’s ‘Faking it’ series all the way through to get a glimpse of how fake most ‘talent’ actually is. Organisations and society are not good at tacking interior problems although some TV programmes are great at showing us why we need to improve.

Third most things that a single human being can do most can do. Given the right circumstances. Research tells us that it is primarily practice that defines excellence in specific skills; genetic predisposition and social background are by themselves only very rarely enough to excel.  Our problem is that we use the very rare examples of such excellence as the basis for extrapolation to the population as a whole. The problem of genius isn’t the same as the problem of talent.

Finally businesses and society needs egg graders and ways of grading eggs. Big one’s, small one’s etc. We need to do that to allocate social roles and economic opportunities; 500 applications for 1 job and a legal system that has turned the instinct for equality into a futile exercise of objectivity. We stop dealing with people and pretend we are working with objects with certain characteristics and features. Our education system is the primary tool of the egg grading process and social norms are enough to ensure compliance especially since it is only those who have succeeded through this system that are in a position to change it. We have confused a system that we designed for one purpose (allocation of socio-economic roles and opportunities) with a truth about human capacity. The qualification map has become the territory and we are all a bit lost.

Individualism, fragmentation and specialisation has made all of this worse. We have looked to the experts, to the gifted, to the powerful, to the egos, to the heroes, to the next great hope and we are continually disappointed but we come back for more. In our teams, in our departments, in our board rooms, in our governments, in our schools, in our communities and in our hearts we look for the individuals who will save us and we believe there is a shortage of candidates. When we do think we have found them we tell the others, the non-talented, that we and they are saved and we are surprised by the others cynicism and poor engagement.

Those organisations which really really work, those communities that are really great to be a part of, those teams that really click, those projects that really fly have as their secret one precious thing. They know that talent isn’t about a single individual; it is a feeling you get when belief, love and motivation coincide to collectively create the extraordinary.

The only real talent shortage is that there aren’t enough people who believe in people enough, who can love enough and who can support and motivate others enough to achieve more than anyone, including them, thought possible. If we had more of them and a better system for creating and supporting them then we wouldn’t be in the mess we are in, on talent and on so many many other things.

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