“Talent” Is that really what we’re looking for?
I’m sure you’ve noticed it’s become fashionable for internal human resource recruiter roles to be titled “Talent Acquisition”. However, is “talent“ really what we want to be recruiting for? Personally, I’m not so sure — it’s just a name I can hear you saying. I get that, however It’s a name that I suggest sets up the wrong connotation from day one.
So what is Talent Anyway?
The Cambridge Dictionary defines talent as “a natural ability to be good at something, especially without being taught”. Thinking about the last part of that sentence, recruiting for talent implies recruiting for an innate ability. Not recruiting for potential, skills that have been or will be learned, or even for that matter a mind-set to learn.
I’m a strong subscriber to the idea that the things most of us are best at, are the things that we have learned because we intrinsically wanted to be good at them. I my case, I know this to be true because as an 8 year old I couldn’t read, — so it’s likely I had little innate ability with letters or words, I’m not even sure I fully understood the sounds of all of the letters. I know for sure I didn’t understand how they could work together to form words. I know now this was not typical, my own 8 year old has read the entire collection of Harry Potter, at her age I would not have been able to read the Dr Susses “The cat in the hat”. Luckily, I had parents that recognised this wasn’t because I stupid, rather my starting point was at a different place than most and this was just a skill I needed to learn, and sought some remedial training to help me.
Hang on but don’t we tell our kids they’re talented?
Well I’m pretty sure we used to, however nowadays, in education and coaching anyway, we work hard to commend people for their effort, rather than their intrinsic ability. In fact, my daughters primary school (that’s grade school for those in the US) has well entrenched values of “Respect”, Kindness”, “Mind-set” and “Choices”. An example from education, and for that matter coaching, is working to avoid telling a student or coachee they are smart or talented, rather working to commend for effort and progress. Celebrating achievement where this is based on effort. Why? The reason we do this is to work towards developing a mind-set of growth, and in turn foster intrinsic motivation through a recognition of what can be attained as a result of the correctly directed effort applied.
As supporting evidence of this, in her excellent book “Mindset”, coiner of the term “Growth Mindset”, Phycologist and Stanford University professor, Carol Dweck, sights numerous experiments and real world examples, drawn from sports and business. These examples demonstrate scenarios convincingly time and again where effort has outperformed talent.
I get all that but what’s the harm in a word?
So getting back to the fact Talent is just a word.
In her book “Grit”, Psychologist and University of Pennsylvania professor, Angela Duckworth writes, “If we overemphasize talent, we underemphasize everything else. In the extreme, it’s as if, deep down, we hold the following to be true: talent → achievement”
The problem is if we think we achieve what we achieve because of our talent, we’re saying we think we achieve things because of our innate ability and not because of the effort we have put into developing the skills. Surely, it’s not a great leap to think, we can developed an acceptance, that we don’t require the effort because of this ability, this talent.
Maybe there is a chance, or even a probability then, that when we fail, as we invariably will if we are reaching far enough, that we will think we don’t have the capability because our talent has failed us.
If however had we recognised that we failed because we hadn’t yet learned how yet to succeed, then we may understand that we needed to gain some new knowledge or skill. We could then recognise that need to apply this, or apply he knowledge gained from the failure to understand how to succeed. We may then realise that achievement is based on skill and correctly directed effort, not some natural talent.
So when recruiting, we’re recruiting for potential, the potential to contribute, make a difference, learn skills and grow. If we must recruit for what somebody has now, to meet an immediate need, then surely we want to recruit for skills and attitude not innate talent that comes from no effort?
I’m not sure about you, but as a leader and manager I want people that recognise the ability and worth of effort. After all, if you didn’t need to apply effort to develop the abilities you hold, how likely is it that you also won’t think you have to apply effort to solve the challenges that your work throws your way, but rather rely on your innate ability?
To quote Jack Welch, legendary former CEO of GE, “Eventually I learned that I was really looking for people who were filled with passion and a desire to get things done. A resume didn’t tell me much about that inner hunger”.
Yes, Talent is just a word, but not one I think we should be using as part of recruiting if we’re trying to support or develop an organisation that champions potential and a mind-set that supports growth.