This week, as I was facilitating a session for a group of managers, one of them asked me the question, “What does top talent really want in a job?” On the surface, that seems like a pretty good question to ask. We all want to hire the best talent and he was trying to understand what they wanted so that he could do a better job of selling to them. But, what he really meant to ask was this “What do the people who I want to hire really want in a job like those I have to offer?”
It has become commonplace to talk of “talent” as if it is absolute. We strategize about recruiting “top talent” as if it is a group of people that is easily defined and targeted. But talent isn’t that simple. And, it’definitely not absolute.
When we step away from conceptual or academic discussions of talent, we need a more practical and realistic framework for understanding talent in business. When you break down the way we actually practice talent, we realize that talent is relative and contextual.
For example, when we recruit for new talent to add to our teams, we will say that we want top talent for our new position. What that means is that you want the best talent available to you. The talent available to you is determined by how much you can pay, what else you have to offer a new recruit, your location, opportunity for growth and many other limiting factors. The boy who grows up in a town with the population of 800 wants to date the hottest girl in his school (the top talent), but if he moved to a city with a population of 1 million, his standard of what constitutes a “hot girl” would probably change just due to the number of girls he’s now exposed to. The girl who is the “hottest” in his small town school, might not make the cut in the big city. That’s relativity in action. We evaluate talent the same way in business. A individual who is top talent in one situation might be middle of the pack in another.
Even the legendary former GE CEO Jack Welch has described that he was thankful he had chosen to attend the University of Massachusetts instead of MIT because at UMASS, he was the top talent in his class and he learned to lead from the front of the pack. He felt that had he gone to MIT, he would have been in the middle of the pack in terms of talent and that may have changed how he developed significantly. In business, we need to understand and embrace the relativity of talent. When we recruit or promote individuals, we are looking for great talent and potential relative to our situation and available talent pool. So, we need to have a great understanding of our organization’s talent situation and how that impacts the kind of talent that we should be trying to recruit.
Talent is also contextual. Talent in one environment may not constitute talent in another. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that because someone showed great ability in one situation that they will be as able in every situation. For example, an individual who has years of successful experience marketing within an established firm with a strong brand may not have any success marketing a start-up firm. Long ago, I was pretty good at selling copy machines to small businesses. But, those selling skills don’t mean that I’m going to be good at selling service solutions to large companies (although I am really hoping it does). The context and situation have huge implications on what constitutes talent. As leaders and talent professionals, we have to be diligent about defining what talent means in our organization, in very specific terms. Otherwise, it’s easy to end up chasing talent that isn’t likely to succeed in our context.