SPOT THE TALENT

If you happen to bump into an HR professional telling you they're on the lookout for talent, consider carefully how you reply in this litigious age.  Mind you, unless you've spent the last couple of years blindfolded, wearing a boiler suit and listening to white noise through headphones, I'm sure you will immediately know what they're talking about.

Because 'talent', of course, is the new, er, whatever-it-is-they-used-to-call-it-before-someone-hit-on-this-latest-buzzword.  It has become synonymous with the most valuable, high-potential members of staff (beautifully synchronous for a word whose original root is the Latin for 'sum of money'), and in the age of the knowledge worker, talent is at a premium.  Organisations have Chief Talent Officers and Talent Managers and software programs for Aligning Talent with Organisational Mission and goodness knows what else.

I wonder whether this obsession with a notional 10% of the workforce is sending a subliminal message that the rest of the organisation is staffed by talentless numpties (although anyone who's ever called a customer helpline may be one step ahead on that one).  At a more practical level, I wonder whether the whole idea of 'talent' ultimately prevents people from being as talented as they might be.

I was having a High Level Debate (that's consultantspeak for 'blazing row') with a colleague a couple of weeks ago about whether anyone can be taught how to be creative.  Having built a business on the credo that they can, I felt obliged to fight my corner.  This was tricky, since my colleague's approach was to heap glowing affirmations upon me about my own creative talents and their irreproducibility.  Torn between the temptation to bask in positive feedback (well, you never know how many years you'll have to wait for it to come round again) and my professional obligations, I did what any world class facilitator would do:  I sat and sulked quietly while pretending to reflect contemplatively.  

The Gallup organisation undertook a massive study into this whole talent thing.  One of their conclusions was the heretical idea that if organisations spent more time helping people develop strengths rather than correct weaknesses then the notional talent pool - not to mention the effectiveness of the organisation - would be far higher.  It's a fair point:  I wonder how many top talent development programmes are based on the default assumption that to operate at senior levels you need to be good at everything, so you've got to spend the next six months doing things you're not very good at in order to become more rounded and promotable. (Guess what: after six months of underperforming as a result of spending your time doing things you're not very good at, what actually happens is you get taken off the talent programme.)

The Gallup authors were of the view that talent is innate. And, generally, I share their view. What bothers me is that if you're not careful, your innate talents become an excuse for not developing.  I've heard one too many workshop participant say: "There's not really any point in me working at this area, as it's not natural for me."  I see.  And the first time you ever got behind the wheel of a car as a learner driver, how natural did that feel?  And did you give it up and decide it wasn't worth it?

Because what we're talking about here is not excellence, but being as good as you can at something which it would benefit you to be good at.  I will never be as good at taking free kicks as David Beckham (though neither, sadly, will David Beckham).  But I bet if I spent a couple of days with him, by the end of day two I'd be better than I am now - and will have learned to tie my sarong properly as a bonus.

I do get uppity when the innate talent argument is applied to creativity, for a similar reason. For you to say I have a talent for creativity is like me saying that you have a talent for wiping your bottom or cleaning your teeth. It's something I do every day; it's a habit as much as a talent.  I do it in my sleep, like a long distance lorry driver.  The conditioning we received as children apart (see http://www.ideaswillhappen.com/s4tw/why_you_can't%20be%20creative.htm), many of us shy away from developing our creativity because we assume we're no good at it.  This generally means either (1) we just don't practise enough, and/or (2) we haven't yet found the part of the creative process which suits our talents best.

Thought for the day: you may not be brilliant at everything, but you can always be better at what you need to be better at.  Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to call Sven-Goran Eriksson and offer my services for the next world cup.

(c) Phil Lowe 2005.  All Rights Reserved