What is talent?

by Michael Haberman on July 15, 2013 · 4 comments


Every role, performed at excellence, requires talent, because every role, performed at excellence, requires certain recurring patterns of thought, feeling or behavior.

Every role, performed at excellence, requires talent, because every role, performed at excellence, requires certain recurring patterns of thought, feeling or behavior.

The term “talent” is used a great deal in HR. We have talent management, talent acquisition, talent reports, people are referred to as “talent” and they are managed by talent managers. I ask the question “What is talent?” because I don’t necessarily have a good definition.

10,000 hours

Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, popularized the concept of talent being associated with 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. This was translated into an approximation of 10 years before someone was really “talented” at what they do. Of course this is not a good definition for employers to operate under. We often hire people who have not had the opportunity to achieve the expertise or talent through 10,000 hours of deliberate practice.

Since that book and the popularization of the concept many others have discounted the concept as being the sole determiner of talent. These writers point out that innate abilities, or genetics, or instincts also play a role in someone exhibiting talent. Temple Grandin and Richard Panek, in their article Your Genes Don’t Fit: Why 10,000 Hours of Practice Won’t Make You an Expert, relate the story of Grandin who had access to the same terminal, connected to the same computer, that Bill Gates had access to, yet, despite hours and hours of practice he could not pick up computer programing in the same manner that Gates did.

If you want other evidence that disputes that the primacy of 10,000 hours doesn’t always work there is the story of Michael Kearney. According to author Scott Barry Kaufman

Michael started talking at age four months and reading at eight months. He soaked up the elementary curriculum by the age of four, entered college at the age of six, and graduated at 10. His father, Kevin Kearney, observed that it was as though his son had a ‘rage to learn’”. Kaufman says, in What is talent – and can science spot what we will be best at?  “One thing that has emerged clearly from the research is that talent and practice are far more intertwined than originally thought.” He quotes Psychologist Dean Keith Simonton who “argues that talent is best thought of as any package of personal characteristics that accelerates the acquisition of expertise, or enhances performance given a certain amount of expertise.

 Therefore, talent allows a person to “get better faster” or “get more bang for the buck” out of a given amount of expertise.

A business view

Well these scientific discussions don’t necessarily help us with our business definition of talent. Certainly we would like to be able to hire someone who as an innate ability that has been honed by 10,000 of practice, but do we really have that opportunity all that often? An article by Marcus Buckingham and Curt W. Coffman, How Great Managers Define Talent, say that to great managers talent is “a recurring pattern of thought, feeling or behavior that can be productively applied.” They put the emphasis on “recurring” saying

Your talents…are the behaviors you find yourself doing often. You have a mental filter that sifts through your world, forcing you to pay attention to some stimuli, while others slip past you, unnoticed. Your instinctive ability to remember names, rather than just faces, is a talent. Your need to alphabetize your spice rack and color code your wardrobe is a talent. So is your love of crossword puzzles, or your fascination with risk, or your impatience. Any recurring patterns of behavior that can be productively applied are talents. The key to excellent performance, of course, is finding the match between your talents and your role.

I think their last sentence is the key and I would then say that talent realized is that which is productively applied. And to be productively applied you have to be in the right role.

Businesses have the roles in the form of jobs. The goal is understanding what “talent” is needed to be productive and successful in those jobs. How is this done? A combination of job analysis and modeling the behavior of high performing incumbents is a good start. How do you identify people who have the needed talent? Certainly effective interviewing is important. Additionally behavior assessments will help.

Buckingham’s comments imply that every job needs talent and he says “Every role, performed at excellence, requires talent, because every role, performed at excellence, requires certain recurring patterns of thought, feeling or behavior.” It is the great manager’s role, their talent, to understand what those recurring patterns of thought, feeling or behaviors are and then look for people with those recurring patterns.

End point

Kaufman, in his very interesting discussion, makes a statement that companies that are hiring trainees should pay attention to. He says “We should be aware of the fact that once anyone, whatever the age, finds the domain that best matches his or her unique package of personal characteristics, the learning process can proceed extremely rapidly as the individual becomes inspired to excel. This requires keeping the door open and instituting a dynamic talent development process where the only admission criterion is readiness for engagement.” (His article is very worth the read.)

To sum up, every job requires some talent. Every person has the potential for exhibiting a talent. Some are more talented than others, but everyone can be inspired to excel. Our job is to match the talents to the roles and to provide an opportunity for engagement in order to allow people to exhibit their talent.

Now if I could just figure out my talent.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Bill Ramsey July 15, 2013 at 10:24 am

“. . . talent realized is that which is productively applied. And to be productively applied you have to be in the right role.”

A quick example from a guy who lives and works in the world of Behavioral Fit and how it relates to the workplace:

Rudy Ruetteger–yes, the guy from the movie–is a brilliant example of Right Person, Wrong Role.

Did you know? Rudy was a championship boxer in college.

Would you rather be his football coach, or his boxing coach? IMHO, the search for “talent” in the workforce often divorces talent from context. For all the work it requires to identify & hire great talent, it’s sad when companies ignore the context of that talent. An employee’s Job Fit [role & their immediate team] is the difference between Rudy the football player and Rudy the boxer.


Michael Haberman July 15, 2013 at 12:51 pm

An excellent example Bill. Thanks for the insight. However, Rudy the movie would not have nearly as interesting.


Bill Ramsey July 15, 2013 at 4:28 pm

You’re right, Haberman. And I wouldn’t cry like a girl at the end of the Rudy Unquestionably Dominates Boxing movie.


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