Talent is where you find it.

Not long ago, talent was defined in part by length of service. Tenure.  We expected that those who had toiled long and hard at a craft would somehow reach a level of performance most others couldn’t. Perhaps. Even Malcolm Gladwell bandied about the 10,000 hour rule as if it were the standard by which we should measure ourselves. Yet, like much pseudo-science postulated today, it ain’t always so.

Talent – the ability to excel at something beyond the norm – shows up in many different guises. As the labor market becomes ever more competitive it behooves us to keep that in mind. Searching for tenure as a proxy of talent may in fact hurt us. The question is, do you really have ten years of experience, or one year of experience ten times?

Sometimes we use age as a proxy giving it meaning where none should really exist. We have innate biases and it helps to remember this as try to assess character and potential.

For example, we sometimes bestow attractiveness to the young simply because they’re young, but, as the poet Ian Anderson reminds us, that’s just “an accident of birth.” You were young once too. Many moons ago so was I. Young, or old, in itself does not mean anything. Talent matters.

My stylist is younger than my youngest child, yet I trust her. Why? She’s busy as hell, does lots of special events, and is up on hair care. Stylist you say? That doesn’t matter. Really? Do you want someone untalented with sharp scissors around your head?

Probably the last five CTOs I’ve worked with have been younger than me. They’ve also had a much tougher career I think – the average lifespan of a CTO is somewhere around 2 years mas o menos. And yet, I’ve enjoyed working for all of them: visionary, tough, fast-moving.

My fiancial adviser is older than me (it is possible you know). He listens, speaks slowly, is rather unemotional and calm. Able to see the upside and risk of almost any bet. No, he missed the totality of the recession but knew we were in a bubble economy – he helped many of his clients avoid the worst.

You see talent is not a function of age. One can practice something incorrectly (golf anyone?) for 10,000 hours and still be quite bad at it. I am proof.

The quest for learning however, what causes this to lead to that, is truly a mark of talented individuals. In middle age I have taken up painting and yoga and world events and they have made me more open. Yet I carried with me from childhood my love of writing, sport and gardening. It’s the learning that keeps us open.

So when you assess talent for hire or promotion, go beyond irrelevant factors like age and tenure. Examine learning and lifestyle – what has the person been doing to improve and expand professionally and personally? Have they been on a path of growth and experience, or was the last sign of a spark years ago and now simply remembered like the salad days of an irrelevant professor. We are all born with talent.

The question is, what do we do with it?


4 thoughts on “Talent

  1. Great read 🙂

    Slightly of topic but I can’t help myself 🙂 Personally I find the way we use the word “talent” rather annoying. Why not just say candidates? Because we want to feel more important by pretending we work in talent acquisition rather than recruitment? When has it stopped being ok to just be a candidate? Yes, we’re all different and I’m sure most of us will find things we’re better at than others but wouldn’t that call for an individual approach rather than referring to 100% of candidates with the same collective noun?

    So getting back to your point Chris, I hope we could also stop pretending we’re not looking for experience – just because we’re using the word “talent” when we refer to it doesn’t mean we’re fooling anyone…

  2. Good article Chris – I would add one thing. Talent in company A may not be talent in Company B if the cultural fit is wrong ! Where I do completely agree is on people’s attitudes to personal development. I have seen some great sales people who haven’t moved on because they haven;t been able or willing to learn new sales techniques or to use different approaches to win business…….not just older people with thirty years experience but also those who ave grown up with social media, etc………

    I read the other day a quote along the lines of “the person who doesn’t think they need to change is probably being overtaken by someone making that change”. Continuous learning is key in a world which changes so rapidly !

  3. Kasia – Talent is used in a number of different contexts. Some people do use it for the whole of recruitment but I agree it is probably banded about too much. My own view on talent acquisition is that it focusses on those roles which have been identified as typically fulfilling the needs of the organisations succession plan – for example, a previous company knew that their best CFO’s had worked in a particular Management Accounting role (in the previous 5-7 years) and that was a focus for acquiring talent (ie the future leadership of the business) in to that role more junior role…….hope that makes sense !

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