The Real War for Talent

The war is not to find talent; it’s to use the talent you have already.

The search for talent is ongoing. Individuals seek to develop their talents, companies seek to identify talent and retain it, succession planning requires it, politicians plan for it, and the world wants to find it. But what is it?

I was having dinner at a friend’s home and the subject came up because their 11 year old son had recently brought home his school report card which stated from his art teacher: “[His] talent is yet to be fully developed.” His mother, always one for a quick tongue responded “His only talent is making excuses for not doing his homework.”

The young boy sat at the table grimacing and whilst his mum meant it in jest, there was an element of truth in it. I said “I see a glittering future as a political spin-doctor.” The boy’s eyes lit up. This so-called talent had a purpose.

The word “talent” is bandied around for so many things and we don’t always truly understand what is meant by “talent”. So to the trusty dictionary…

Talent: innate mental or artistic aptitude (as opposed to acquired ability); less than genius.

So what is innate?

Innate: existing in one from birth; inborn; native: innate musical talent.

Now, my core business is experiential training and a behaviouralist, so if talent cannot be acquired… Better find a better definition…

Talent: natural ability to do something well.

‘That nasty word ‘natural’

Natural: based on the state of things in nature; constituted by nature: Growth is a natural process.

The Thesaurus, always illuminating, and find ‘talent’ associated with words like’ability’, ‘ ‘adeptness’, ‘adroitness’, ‘charisma’, ‘facility’, ‘gift’, ‘knack’, ‘wisdom’, ‘gumption’, ‘capacity’, ‘brilliance’ and ‘genius’

Is it seems that you are either born with a talent or not. No acquiring a talent, developing it certainly, but if the foundation is not there…

Companies seek ‘talent’ for succession planning, as do politicians. It is most often associated with leadership or management ‘talent’.

Companies are also hooked on retaining talent. And surely that’s right, once you have talent in your organisation, you really don’t want to lose it. Many, inspired by a Mckinnsey article in 1997 “The War for Talent” took this to extreme, indulging ‘talent’ and doing everything they could to keep them engaged, satisfied, even delighted. Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point, wrote an article in the New Yorker magazine in 2002 entitled “The Talent Myth”. By then the whole ‘War for talent’ was under a dark, ominous cloud called Enron. The McKinssey article had, after all, been largely based on what Enron was doing at the time and how everybody should emulate it.

The trouble is that ‘talent’ is most often ascribed to the very brightest, highly motivated individuals who are very driven. And being bright (intelligent) does not, necessarily, mean talent. Being ‘driven’ is not the only criteria for success.

I have met and worked with many talented individuals. In fact, I believe that every single person has talent. What that talent is and how it can be used by companies is another matter.

If we accept that talent is something that you are born with, surely we need to know how do we identify talent, and how do we leverage that talent?

Identifying talent

I’ve seen this in many organisations. The brightest and best are identified as part of the talent pool – there’s some fanfare, a suite of training programs, perhaps MBAs are taken and the talent are promoted. Meanwhile, the non-talent morale has sunk, many have quit or actively seeking new positions, commitment has dropped and performance suffered. The talent, being highly driven, take this upon themselves and make up for the loss, working extra hard and many burning out. There follows a new initiative to regain the work-life balance and a big drive to retain talent.

An alternative

We can talk to the existing talent – the best leaders, managers, the best individual contributors – not just from your own organisation but others too, and uncover their foundational talents that enable them to be all that they are. It really can be quite surprising:

  • The Sales head of a global telecomms company, highest sales, driven, emulated by staff. Talent: Running!
  • The CFO of a globally renowned auditing firm, admired by staff, relied on by the entire organisation, inspirational and respected. Talent: Artist!
  • Executive Head Chef, world famous, near-worshiped by other chefs. Talent: Calculus!
  • The COO of an International Bank, greatly respected, charismatic and exceptional innovative customer service. Talent: Acting!
  • Innovative Entrepreneur, adored by staff, gregarious, fun and incredibly creative. Talent: Comedian!

There are many other examples, some obvious, many not. What is common to most of the people we have interviewed is that their talent itself is not what enables them to do what they do, it is – how they do the talent.

I suggest that we do something a little different. Why not find what the underlying and true individual’s talents are and then leverage them towards the leadership or management attributes you need? Or perhaps, we can identify their talent and find out where they best fit in your organisation and for some, outside it.

Leveraging Talent

Taking someone’s talent and leveraging it into the workplace requires a little creative thinking. Fortunately, creative thinking is something that we can develop. It’s part de Bono’s lateral thinking and part conceptual mapping. Some connections make absolute and logical sense, others require us to dig into the talent and how that talent is done by the individual.

Using the examples cited above, I shall briefly outline the main connections that the individual leveraged – either on their own ‘naturally’ or through coaching.

  • “Running was all I ever wanted to do. I’d get up early every morning and race the postman on his bike. For me, it was freedom. Now, I run with my team, we race the competition and we enjoy the freedom we gain from our bonuses and commission.”
  • “As a kid, I was always drawing. I loved to draw. Cartoons especially, and comics. When I was at primary school I drew my first comic which turned into a series and a long story – intricately entwined with sub-plots and different characters. By the time I went to university, I’d all but stopped drawing, taking accountancy because that’s where the jobs were. Today, I guess I’m still drawing comics in a way. I look for the sub-plots in the accounts, what’s the other story behind the main one and that’s how I teach my staff. Look for the sub-plots – it makes auditing a whole lot more fun.”
  • “Calculus was easy. Everyone else thought it was really difficult and stupid, but I found it easy. I’d get a thrill from finding the right answer. It’s obvious to me now, my recipes are just a form of calculus, you take ingredients A and B and turn them into X. I don’t ‘think I’ll tell my chefs that, they might think I’m a nerd and not the great artiste.”
  • “I first acted in a play at kindergarten. I was a tree. But I was the best tree ever. My parents adored my acting, always encouraging me, in fact they wanted me to continue through drama school and everything. I think they thought I would be a movie star. I did try for a while when I went to university but I never had any money. After uni, I joined a local drama club, met my wife and we soon had our first child. So I left the acting world and joined a local bank – great prospects, regular wages and, a subsidised mortgage. I suppose that a COO is rather like a director in a play, making sure that the right people are in the right place at the right time with the right script. Brilliant!”
  • “I was always the joker of the family. My brother bore the brunt of most of my wilder practical jokes – and some of them weren’t really funny at all. It got me in a lot of trouble at school. In the end I quit and worked on a market stall. I worked for this really sour faced bloke selling vegetables – blimey he was miserable. He hated my joking with the customers, but they loved it and kept coming back, so he didn’t ‘stop me. I’m still a joker, I like a laugh and I like to keep the guys happy. I suppose being the centre of attention does something for me. That’s why I set this up (the company), being the centre of everyones’ attention and we make money. I always say, if you can’t have a laugh while your living life then life will laugh at you.”

Find your talent and find a way to use it.

Professional Leadership Caddy

There is greatness within you. I work with people who want to work it out.

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