Change the Discourse: Say No to the Talent Hype
One of the banes of modern business vocabulary is our penchant for hyping up everything. The more high sounding a word, the better we all feel. I can illustrate it with a dozen examples, but choose not to bore you. For the purpose of this article, let us examine the consequences of abusing the talent terminology.
If you hear presentations from consulting firms, research outputs or even some of our Business leaders, you will lose all sense of proportions about the T-word. Let us start by asking this question, whether in the domain of liberal arts, science and sports everyone is referred to as talent? There are hundreds who perform in these spaces, but only a handful earns the privilege to be referred to as talent. However, in the world of modern business, we refer to every employee and potential employee as talent.
The word talent has its origins in the ancient world, as a “Measure” of gold or silver – Ten Talents of Gold or Silver. It then became a descriptor for something which is of “Special Value” and something of rare value. So when we refer to talent we refer to someone with a special or rare ability. It is a noun. Martina Navratilova is a talent. Every tennis player is not a talent. In business we confuse this and use this word with poor application of mind to all and sundry; Roles, Abilities and Persons.
The consequence of this confusion is the hype. The moment we refer to people requirements of all jobs as talent, our perspectives about them get warped. This leads to unreal expectations of ability and performance from all people. Any unreal expectation is unlikely to materialize. This then leads us to be dis-satisfied with the people from whom we expected these special abilities. Because of this, we reject people even before we give them a chance to develop their abilities and bemoan shortages. The converse is when we define what is mundane and routine as special, over a period of time we will lose the discriminating eye for talent. Either way the consequences are not comforting.
Because of this T-word hype, the error we do is over-specifying requirements for almost all jobs. Let us examine one job, which is the heart of any business; Sales. This job ideally should require the following abilities:
- Willingness to engage with other people- Sociable
- Not losing heart with rejection by others – Resilience
- Willingness to make repeated attempts – Relentlessness
- Ability to grasp and communicate simple details about products
- Basic arithmetic
We should stop here. What kind of credentials will satisfy us about the adequacy of these abilities in some one? Shouldn’t a class 12 qualification be sufficient enough for grasp of product, process details and arithmetic? In our education system to pass class 12 in any discipline the student has to grasp more complex concepts, memorize and reproduce it, than the most complex product any of our organizations have. Should we therefore eschew from re-assessing this and arithmetic ability and focus on the other 4, which essentially are personal characteristics, of which no education system can certify someone’s credentials?
Let us build this scenario further. We confuse between knowledge and skills. The hype we put out because of the T-Word make us believe that everyone who qualifies at any level is a delivered product for us to plug and play at will. So we presume that this 22 -23 year old “talent” will come to play with full knowledge and skill maturity.
Kindly pause and think on what is the possibility that anyone at any stage of his life can be ready with knowledge, relevant for a wide range of industries; Banking, Insurance, Pharma, Telecom, FMCG… Is there anything called sales or customer service knowledge? These two account for more than 50% of the roles in any industry. Yet we believe that such an absurdity is possible. These are skills. No academic course with high dose of cognitive inputs and classroom exercises can ever build adequate proficiency of these skills. Martina certainly did not learn tennis in her school classroom! She certainly is not talented enough to play anything more than tennis at a competitive level. No one indeed is! So why this madness with us in the business! We want talent and that too multi-faceted!
If we do not use the hyped T-word then we will be prepared to select people for their orientations to certain skills and then provide them time and support to develop these skills on-the-job in the first few years. Yes years and not months! Very few people, with special abilities will learn and master these skills many months ahead of the others. The Virat Kohli’s of the world. It is then fair to refer to these handfuls as “Talent”. The great many will take much longer to get their skill to adequate levels of proficiency and never to mastery. If we accept this as the true nature of how abilities develop in majority of us then we will stop using this T-Word loosely. This in turn will shape our perspectives and expectations. Then we all will stop bemoaning about the “Talent shortage”.
The fundamental difference between Talent and Skill terminologies is; talent implies an innate ability while skill is all about acquired ability. Most abilities in humans are acquired. Language skills, many psycho-motor abilities, social etiquette, interpersonal skills etc. are all acquired. All acquired skills become proficient only through practice over months and years. Skill expands with practice, matures and becomes reliable when used over and over again in different contexts. Hence, skill maturity is a function of practice, usage in variety of contexts, feedback, iterative course correction and support. Even a prodigy requires years of practice to realize her potential.
Much in the same manner we abuse the T-word for leadership. No phrase has been misused more than the phrase “talent management”. We will be told that the biggest concern of CEOs of all organizations is the poor leadership pipeline. I can vouch safe that CEOs of 2 organizations, which I have been blessed to be associated for long years, HLL and ICICI have never endorsed, leave alone articulated this view. Generations of CEO’s in these 2 organizations knew that leadership is a skill, which needs to be developed. It like any skill; develops when nurtured and withers when neglected.
They all knew that for an organization to develop its leadership pipeline, its leaders should be willing to place big bets on a few people very early and then invest in them disproportionately for years. They were also prepared to accept that not all will bubble up and there will be losses in this process. They all understood that this requires a process but more importantly the key differentiator was direct personal investment of the key leaders in the organization. To them it was not an assessment exercise. It was more an act of faith and entrustment of big responsibilities in order to groom their wards in the real world. They were all patient with their wards and gave them time and allowed them a fair share of failures to learn from and develop.
Much like in sales and customer service, many organizations make the mistake of looking for the ready-made plug play model. Unlike sales, here we are talking about the rare few with special abilities who rise above the pile. These indeed are worthy of being referred to as talent. Yet they too are raw and require years to develop and mature in their skills. Here too their success has almost no link to their educational credentials and functional knowledge.
Leadership success is predicated disproportionately by skills and perspectives and not only by specialized functional knowledge. Specialized functional knowledge has to be so exceptional that it qualifies the talent definition, for it to create value without the leadership skills. By merely doing a role and having better knowledge than all those around, does not make someone possess specialized functional knowledge. It is delusional.
Any specialized knowledge without the ability to set an agenda, mobilize support and steer execution will be sterile and cannot create value. Hence, it will not qualify to be a leadership skill. I agree that leadership, which does not have access to specialized knowledge or grasp of it also cannot create value. But leadership skill is also to identify, access and leverage this specialized knowledge whereever it is. Can you once again see the limitation of the talent hype?
So all those who bemoan poor leadership pipeline in their organizations have to examine, whether this is because they are looking for gods amongst humans or whether their approach is a lazy ‘let the process deliver to me one’ instead of ‘let me personally invest, nurture and build’ or ‘an over emphasize on specialized functional knowledge’.
We also make the mistake of confusing family background, academic qualifications and Ivy League tags as proof of talent. The fundamental error here is we are perpetuating Halo effect. That someone is a topper or from an Ivy League institution does indicate a few abilities, such as Intellect, perseverance, track record of ability to learn new knowledge (not skill) and may be analytical ability. It certainly does not indicate influencing skills, breadth of perspectives, political savvy, ability to use authority, ability to set agenda and mobilize people, risk appetite, drive execution and even articulation. So why then do we take it for granted that academic excellence and Ivy League pedigree indicates leadership talent leave alone skills?
This is what Malcolm Gladwell calls “Talent Myth”. When Martina broke into the world of tennis, Czechoslovakia had no pedigree of producing tennis talent, much like Sweden before King Borg, Switzerland before Federer or Germany before Becker and Graf. Yet, the tennis Ivy Leagues for decades was USA and Australia.
In conclusion, it is better to stick to the traditional concept of “Skill” than the hyped up “Talent” adage. The imageries associated with the 2 terminologies are vastly different. Skill terminology grounds us to reality and suitably shapes our expectations and commitments. To me the clincher is that the “Talent hype” results in the sink or swim irresponsible approach, while the “Skill focus” results in investing for sustainable skill maturity of many people. Remember if yours is skill focus then you are in control; unlike talent focus, where you can only live in hope for the birth of the messiah!
This article was first published on The Other View. Re-published with permission