• Erwan Hernot

Is There A War For Talents?


Idea : There is a war for talents... if you are able to define it. The vagueness of the word fosters 2 opposite views on talents. It doesn't help much. Maybe the solution could be to start with the end: talent results in performance.


A growing number of executives and managers have, among others exotic things, the word « talent » on their business card. It seems that they are more than the usual corporate guy: they are soldiers, deemed to wage a « war » for talents. According to Wikipedia, « the war for talent is a term coined by Steven Hankin of McKinsey & Company in 1997, and a book by Ed Michaels, Helen Handfield-Jones, and Beth Axelrod, Harvard Business Press, 2001. The war for talent refers to an increasingly competitive landscape for recruiting and retaining talented employees. » The digital era added more reasons to the argument and the Covid pandemic didn’t change any of them. If in we are at war, we need to know our targets and to be sure we are able to aim at them. But talent is ill-defined at best.


« Everybody is talented » vs « The Vital Few »

Since it is vague and changing, then everybody is talented, right? For some HR managers, the term ‘weaknesses’ has become so politically incorrect that it has been replaced with ‘opportunities’. Two concepts are combined to form a powerful alliance : a feel-good approach to talent management and the concept of multiple intelligences. The feel-good approach to talent management is not only killing the little self-awareness most employees have, it also suggests that every employee matters as much as every other. Assuming that every employee has potential (aka talent), and therefore deserves to be developed, reduces the return on investment from talent management interventions, not least because organisational performance will increase much more when the performance of the key players improves than when the weakest players do better. We could wonder if what people need is more an honest feedback on their potential, rather than confirmation of their talent delusion. When employees are made aware of their limitations, they have a chance to close the gap between their actual and ideal selves, and improve. The concept of multiple intelligences also paved the way for this « everybody is talented » belief. It initially came from a misunderstanding on « multiple intelligences », that is confusing intelligence (aka cognitive ability) and learned abilities and preferences. The « multiple intelligences » concept wants to avoid tackling with the fact that people are born with a baseline level of intelligence: a certain capacity to learn and an innate speed of learning about problems. Intelligence is influenced by the environment and experience but is also rooted in genetics and physiology. Some researchers (Tomas Chamorro Premuzic (1)) draw conclusions that « talent comes from the Vital Few. » Indeed, many companies have in place talent management processes that are congruent with this Vital Few rule aka the Pareto Principle. The Pareto principle would state here that, for many events, roughly 80% of the organizational performance come from 20% of the employees. The focus is not to make everyone better, but to further develop those who are already great because there is just a few Einsteins. It adds here the notion of inborn geniuses with the argument that organizational performance is, in many instances, the simple aggregation of the individual performances. What matters is what individuals do, not the context or system in which they do it. You simply have to be smart to start with, and if you’re not, you’ll never achieve the expertise you want. But intelligence is not talent. Precisely, talent is linked to intelligence but is more than just intelligence. Take for instance, the best intelligence predictors: they don’t do a very good job of selecting the talented people. « IQ is the most powerful predictor of job performance across studies, but IQ still seldom correlates more than 0.4 with performance. Since the amount of variation explained by a predictor is the correlation squared, intelligence accounts for no more than 16 percent of the variation in performance, leaving some 84 percent unexplained. » (2). There is no contest that not all employees will become Einstein. And that you need some Einsteins to develop the theory of relativity. But it underlies the fact that inborn intelligence is more important than hard work, perseverance, and effort to reach outstanding performance. But performance is a function of effort (motivation), intelligence and talent (ability). So talent alone does not explain performance. For instance: some intelligent people turn out to be lazy. Some highly successful people turn out to be narcissistic, manipulative and ultimately destructive to their team.


Talent changes regarding the era you consider

Both the previous feel-good and the Vital Few approaches don’t give us a clear view on talent definition ;) This vague definition of talent unveils another problem: when assessing ability or talent, human judgments are clouded by invariable, potent, and largely inescapable psychological biases. Skills rely more on facts you can analyze most of the time. Talent results from a feeling reaction. It is not necessarily wrong but definitely less trustworthy. If we are not able to define talent per se, Let’s define it by its outcomes: talented people are those who greatly exceed expectations regarding how they perform a mission or a task. This task or mission greatly changes depending on the context you consider. Therefore assessments of talent depend on how it is defined by a given culture in a given era. Let’s have here an overlook on four different eras. During the first one, talent was more or less linked to physical attributes. With Industrial Revolution came the 2nd era (20th century). Spotting talent was finding verbal, analytical, mathematical, logical cleverness. Educational pedigrees and tests started to be used as proxies. The third era of talent spotting was driven by the competency movement. Candidates were evaluated on specific characteristics and skills that were supposed to predict performance in the role for which they were hired. The reason: technology evolutions had made jobs more complex, often rendering experience and performance in previous positions irrelevant. So, instead, HR people decomposed jobs into competencies and look for candidates with the right combination of them. At stake, was a match between job descriptions (technically described) and candidate’s skills. Personality emerged but there were processes and managers that guide the « how to work » and guarantee a good level of execution. We are now in the 4th era (3). We still like to put people in boxes. But the assumption that academic performance guarantees achievement throughout life but isn't borne out by research or experience. « Analytics showed us that academic performance doesn’t predict much »(4) said Lazlo Buck when he was at Google. Focus lastly shifts to potential. In VUCA world, competency based appraisals are increasingly insufficient. Where in strategy was paramount, organizations where designed for control with literally attention paid to the velocity of decision-making or the agility needed to adjust on the fly to external changes. Strategies where portfolio or product driven, not based on the goal of treating each customer has a unique individual. Clearly, that is a paradigm for an era that has disappeared. All leading edge companies are organized for agility, for platforms and networks, and for meaning. Jobs are more complex, more ambiguous or have more day to day variations. It requires greater intelligence for high performance. HR people look first for potentials (= talents). At stake is a match between company (culture, organization, colleagues) and candidates beyond technical skills: behavior, values, beliefs, because the employee has to organise by herself the « how to work » at an excellent level of execution. There are certain qualities of thought (call them talents too) that have always been useful but are now becoming essential. For example: the capacity to let go of comfortable ideas and become accustomed to ambiguity and contradiction; the capability to rise above conventional mindsets and to reframe the questions we ask; the ability to abandon our ingrained assumptions and open ourselves to new paradigms; the propensity to rely on imagination as much as on logic and to generate and integrate a wide variety of ideas; and the willingness to experiment and be tolerant of failure.


How can people perform? Let’s have a look in the brain

When someone performs greatly, she relies on a specific way of seeing the world, considering actions aka anticipating by making hypotheses (from her memory) about what the perception function will receive as information. The link is established by the architecture of neural networks: she sees the world with her past. She relies heavily on her memory recalling her experiences. These experiences directly influence her perceptions, assessments, by emotional anchoring and acquired knowledge. The richer it is, the bigger the pools of experiences, she can tap in. Perception makes it possible to capture information by reconstructing it in order to interpret it and turn it into knowledge. Emotions are the basis of her assessments, they draw attention and trigger action. They are involved in her decision making because they have shaped her memory. If she has positive emotions, she enlarges the scope of her perception hence her capacity to capture information. Fear, on the other hand, narrows this scope. By this mechanism, she easily pays attention to what she knows is salient for her. If she is able to open up to the new and unknown, although it could prove difficult, it it is key to performance. It is a question of mindset: the way she sees herself and what she is able to learn is key. Her attitude about learning is far more important when it comes to true performance. If she believes her abilities are fixed in place, she’ll put up mental blocks that hinder her learning. In others words, the question is not whether your company's employees and leaders are talented; it's whether they have the potential to learn new skills. Carol Dweck (5) explains why it's not just our abilities and talent that bring us success but whether we approach them with a fixed or growth mindset. She makes clear why praising intelligence and ability doesn't foster self-esteem and lead to accomplishment, but may actually jeopardize success. How you think about talent changes what you can achieve. The right mindset (growth) is the basis of important accomplishments in every area. Cognitive ability is dynamic. It can grow (when pushed) or shrink (when unsolicited). Talent, in other words, is far more malleable than many people to believe. As complexity increases, identifying the value and function of any individual element—and where and how to intervene to manage performance — gets harder. Talent depends on a person’s motivation and experience in a particular environment. Talent depends on how a person is managed or led. Talent depends more on effort and having access to the right information and techniques than on natural ability. The best evidence indicates that natural talent is overrated, especially for sustaining organizational performance.


Am I foolish enough to propose at this stage a definition? Let’s try one. Talent = innate intelligence (cognitive ability) + growth mindset + context (cognitive ability solicited by work requirements, nurtured by management) + effort (motivation). Not everybody is talented but the Vital Few rely on much more than just innate intelligence. Therefore war on talents misses the point. Of course, “a collaboration of incompetents, no matter how diligent or well-meaning, cannot be successful.” (6) But companies operate mainly thanks to a high density of ordinary skills throughout the organization. Highly talented people are a useful and powerful organizational tool, but if you need a talent to fix all the problems that arise in an organization, most of the time you will be down. Organizations work because their units and their members are autonomous and interdependent. They are left to do their work. There is delegation, mutual trust. The work is coordinated by reciprocal anticipations. If, there is a war, you can win it through collective intelligence and a flexible and learning organisation.


(1) Tomas Chamorro Premuzic « The Talent Delusion : Why Data, Not Intuition Is The key To Unlocking Human Potential »

(2) Jeffrey Pfeiffer Robert I. Sutton « Hard Facts, Dangerous Half Truths And Total Nonsense »

(3) Claudio Fernandez Araoz 21rst Century Talent Spotting, Harvard Business Review, June 2014

(4) Lazlo Buck « Work Rules »

(5) Carol Dweck « Mindset, Changing The Way You Think To Fulfil Your Potential »

(6) Michael Schrage, research fellow at the MIT Sloan School of Management Initiative on the Digital Economy

Picture: Allan Franca Carmo

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