The new world of Talent: Nature or Nurture?

Talent balance

Recently my colleagues and I have been delighted to work with two groups of senior managers from the Indonesian government.  They came to the UK to explore the issues of talent management and performance management.

During our many discussions it became clear early on that the term “talent management” is both complex and ambiguous and can be used in a range of contexts for a range of purposes. Thinking this through together caused us to identify that talent is really “in the eye of the beholder” as we say in the UK:  it depends on the perspective that you are taking.

Like me, you might have noticed that many organisations are now installing talent management processes. All well and good then, but surely this depends on your definition of talent?  Opinion on this subject appears to be split, some saying that certain individuals are talented and need to be identified and specifically nurtured within an organisation on a specific talent management programme.  Others identify that everyone is talented, and the secret is to bring out the best in everyone.


Working within our programmes, our guests took as their definition of talent as the highflyers within their organisation.  They were looking for guidance on how to identify this group of talented people and how to develop them further. This caused me to refer to some dictionary definitions on talent:

  • “Someone who has a natural ability to be good at something, especially without being taught”. Cambridge English Dictionary
  • “Natural aptitude or skill”. Oxford English Dictionary

These seemed to confirm that part of talent is about some natural ability or aptitude.   However, if this is the case, how come organisations are also focusing upon “growing talent”?  I think we are dealing with two distinct types of activity:

  • Talent: Natural characteristics, skills and abilities
  • High Performer: Learned knowledge, skills, behaviours

It seems obvious that organisations are seeking high performers, but to assume that our high performers also have the natural characteristics, skills and abilities needed, might be a false assumption.  I put this to our guests which allowed us to think about what sort of criteria should we use for identifying high-performers. What separates these individuals from the regular and essential individuals who perform adequately and appropriately? It turned out that some very specific criteria would be needed.

Using Competencies

The specific criteria needed can be in the form of effective competency statements. However, using competency statements can causes issues in its own right. One of the important pitfalls of many competency frameworks is that they cause people to focus too much on complying with a few specific criteria, which in turn inhibits innovation and creativity, one of the very things that we are looking for in our high performer version of talent.

Of course, a properly devised competency framework, which is then effectively used, should be able to provide such criteria. But how many competency frameworks are devised with this sort of flexibility and developmental approach built in, and how many are used effectively within the organisation?  An effective competency framework is more likely to be more successful if, for example:

  • Criteria at a number of different ‘levels’ are used for each competency. This should help differentiation between ‘just meeting’, ‘meeting well’ and ‘significantly exceeding’ in each of the competence areas.
  • All criteria are performance-achievement focused, rather than task-focused. This should ensure that the ‘talented’ individuals and their ideas are not constrained or limited by the criteria themselves.
  • Competencies are grouped and assessed, according to the nature of the activity (for example Communication, Behaviour & Approach, Technical requirements), to ensure specific strengths in different areas can be identified and built upon.
  • Managers receive training and mentoring on how to use the competency framework effectively and fairly.

Fast-track and motivation

When identified, perhaps using competencies, some individuals are put through some form of fast track development are nurtured within an organisation.  But, what does this do in terms of motivation for those that are not selected? Often other “hard working” individuals end up feeling hard done by because they have not been looked upon favourably in terms of development when compared to others “why not me?” I hear them cry, as they become increasingly demotivated and disengaged.

The talent conundrum laid bare…

So, talent it seems can be both natural skills and abilities, AND learnt skills and abilities. Individuals can be assessed (formally or informally) to establish the extent which they meet what the organisation needs within the organisation’s own definition of talent. All employees could be considered talented in some way, or only those that have been specifically identified and selected.  The identification and selection of “talents” depends on what the organisation, department, or individual manager perceives as appropriate. The identification process can be very effective when using clear criteria, but more commonly might be a loose artistic arrangement, like “I know talent when I see it”.  This of course is of highly subjective and relies increasingly on personal perspectives.

Questions on talent

Talent has many faces and many meanings.  One of the questions often asked is how to refocus or improve talent management solutions. Perhaps a good place to start is to ask some basic questions:

  1. What do you really mean by the word talent?
  2. How is this different from what other people within your organisation or partnerships mean by talent?
  3. Is everybody treated equally in the identification and development of what talents they have, or are some individuals singled out for special attention?
  4. What are the implications for everyone of the approach that you and your organisation take?

A talented future?

Due to changing nature of work across the globe at the moment, there can be no ultimate recipe for talent. Change is changing. There are, however, some common things that organisations should consider (and the more effective organisations perhaps already do):

  • Build and maintain a culture for innovation
  • Use an effective competency framework to set the criteria for measuring degrees of talent: everyone knows what to aim for to increase their skills
  • Identify and recognise the talent in everyone and nurture the talents discovered to maximise everyone’s contributions and build motivation
  • Use the identification of talents to ensure the right people are in the right jobs
  • Reward people for their suggestions, ideas and innovations – even if they are only small changes
  • Remember that people need to be positively motivated to bring out their talents, so attend to individual and team motivations
  • Build your organisation’s reputation as one that values people and develops their talents, which send an essential positive message to staff, customers and stakeholders alike

By doing at least some of these, an organisation is more likely to attract and retain the specific individuals and teams people needed, not only to operate but to also thrive in an increasingly competitive and volatile world.


Notes to editors:

ATi provide bespoke programmes through both face-to-face and supported blended learning, including understanding, developing, leading and managing talent, and the development of effective competency frameworks.

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Professor Ian Favell
Ian is a Visiting Professor at Middlesex University and has been Chief External Verifier for CIPD for almost 20 years. As Principal Consultant for Assessor Training Ltd Ian is particularly interested in quality assurance, assessment and verification, training, learning and development, and the development and use of competencies and competency frameworks.
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