What Do We Mean by Talent Anyway?

Baby-Working1According to a recent survey, Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends 2014, the top two challenges facing Human Resources is leadership development along with retention and engagement of talent.  But I have a basic question.  My question is, what do we really mean by talent?

Is talent the ability to get things done?  Is it leadership skills?  Is it character?  What is it? Albert Einstein said the true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.  Our focus is on retention of knowledge.  It needs to be on the ability of conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating information to create new solutions.

I believe the majority of HR management teams think of talent as some kind of thumb drive we plug into the organization to obtain access to all the software inside. My research (the past 18 years in leadership consulting) tells me we have two enormous flaws in how we think about talent.  These flaws prevent us from achieving the performance we are expecting and requiring to be competitive in the global economy.

The first is how we define intelligence.  The second is how we manage and lead people. It seems more HR Departments see talent as some kind of Jeopardy game where the winner is able to memorize all the correct answers and was therefore able to win all the money.  We honor those who can remember facts and make quick decisions on those facts.  We honor them with promotions and bonuses because they enable us to make the right decisions quickly.   The truth is, this approach actually slows us down and eventually creates an ugly kind of dependency.  It’s a kind of manager dependency and/or people dependency instead of a more fluid and flexible system dependency. We need people who are network builders and connectors not thumb drives.

We need connectors, facilitators and multipliers of knowledge not distributors of knowledge.  We need people who can enable others to synthesize with each other to create new knowledge.  This new knowledge is only accessible with the cooperation and interaction between people.  We have to begin to think about talent as a creator of freedom not a dictator of solutions.  If we find talent that can connect people and encourage the interaction of intelligence of all the people we will generate knowledge well beyond our expectations.

This ability of conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating information to create new solutions is often referred to as critical thinking.  Ninety-five to ninety-eight percent of young children just entering schools have critical thinking scores at genius levels.  By the time those same students enter high school only 5 to 10% have retained those levels.  We are killing critical thinking skills of our children through the use of standardized testing and factory like environments in our schools.  We need teachers who are facilitators and connectors not answer dispensers.  We need the same in our organizations.

The second flaw is how we manage and lead people.  Our assumptions are flawed. We think people need to be controlled, much like our children in school, with grades on performance appraisals and pay-for-performance control.   Instead we need leaders who are willing to ask the right questions and to enable employees to ask some of those same challenging questions.

In that same Deloitte survey only 8% believed their organization’s performance management process drove high levels of value.  Our current thinking tends to cause us to use a flawed process to identify talent and then promote those who know the job vs. those who can facilitate new skills and uncover new ideas through imagination.  This is dysfunctional at best.

Effective leaders can facilitate discussions that encourage imagination and risk taking.  They also use tools that enable everyone to remember the knowledge already gained.  Checklists are the tools that enable everyone to be a genius at remembering the right things to do in a given situation. Checklists are a way to remember knowledge so we can forget about being manager dependent (those who are talented at retaining knowledge).  If we use checklists we can instead focus on the conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating and the imagination.  We can then all participate in real intelligence.

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