Jason Lauritsen - Crushing talent dogma to free human potential

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What is Talent?

I originally wrote this post as a guest post for the Human Capital Institute in February 2010.  I was recently reminded of it and as I read it again, I liked the message.  So, I thought it was worth sharing again here.

What is Talent?

Over the past decade, it seems that the concept of Talent has come to the forefront of our business conversations. We talk about talent. We select for talent. We even have entire departments devoted to the management of talent. But what truly is talent? 

 
When we talk about talent, there are a variety of perspectives we can take. As defined by dictionary.com, talent is defined as both: A special natural ability –or– A capacity for achievement or success.
I think that the realm of sports offers the easiest examples when it comes to thinking about talent. By the definitions above, if we were putting together a basketball team, we would find a couple different kinds of talent. The first kind of talent is the kind we find in a point guard who is very quick with his hands and feet which allows him to dribble and pass the ball very effectively. This is certainly a special natural ability. At the same time, an individual who is 7 feet tall could also be thought to have talent because height in basketball generally means a capacity for achievement (although we probably wouldn’t normally have thought of height as a talent). The thing that both individuals share in common is that they possess traits that may predispose them to success in basketball, but that definitely don’t guaranty success. 
 
In organizations, talent is more complicated to understand. We’ve all known people who have both the ability and capacity to be successful, but don’t for some reason. While some people may argue that this is a case of wasted talent, I think that it’s more complicated than that. I think that at the root of the problem is that we often consider talent to be universal, that a “talented” individual will excel in any situation. 
 
If we take a more practical approach to talent in business, we might define talent as “anything that predisposes an individual to success in a position or organization.” Said another way, talent is situational. It is something you don’t have to learn that will give you a natural advantage towards being successful in a specific situation. Defined this way, a trait may be considered a talent in one situation and not another (i.e. being 7 feet tall is a talent in basketball but not in flying fighter jets). I’m not suggesting that you have to have talent to be successful in a role, but that having talent will mean that you are starting with an advantage. If I have a position on my team that requires heavy interaction with people, hiring someone who has the talent of an outgoing personality would certainly make for an easier path to success than hiring an introvert. Conversely, that outgoing personality may not be a talent if I was hiring for a computer programmer. 
 
So, if we think of talent as situational rather than universal, our job as talent management professionals can be boiled down to finding ways to set talent free. Our focus should be on placing people in the right roles where their abilities and capacities can manifest as talent to drive our organization’s success.
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Jason Lauritsen