Defining Talent in 5 Steps

About once a year I get the feeling that we aren’t making any progress in improving our approaches to acquiring and retaining talent. Perhaps part of this discouragement arises because neither recruiters nor managers have put much rigor into defining the quality of our employees. We bandy about the term “talent,” and yet we have no real definition of it. For many recruiters, talent is frequently synonymous with “anyone who says yes.” What I mean by “talent” here are those employees whose contributions are vital to our ability to produce our product or deliver our service. If we were to compare our firms to sports teams, I think we could understand talent better. When a sports manager speaks of talent, he is talking about those individuals on any team who make the points, block the other team, or who the fans and players identify as essential for success. Almost all organizations quantify the contribution individuals engaged in sales make to the company. They know that above average performers generate more sales than average performers. McKinsey, in their Talent War 2000 study, has also documented this. Those surveyed by McKinsey were asked to assess how much more a high performer in a P&L position generates than a middle performer. They estimated the difference at 49%, and they said that the high performer should be paid 42% more. When you think about what 49% means, it is astounding. That means a high performer brings in almost twice as much business as an average performer or produces twice as much. If you as a recruiter could identify potential high performers, how much more respect would you get? How much better would your reputation be? If we are focused on improving the quality of the talent we hire, here are some of the things we could be doing as recruiters and as human resource professionals.

  1. We could work harder than we do now at identifying high performers. Together with managers, we could establish some indicators of success or of high performance for each position we recruit for. These could be the number of sales an employee has made in a month, the number of reports he or she has written that resulted in consulting assignments, the amount of revenue his or her group has generated, and so forth. This is hard work. There aren’t a lot of benchmarks to go by, but we all know more or less who contributes the most to our organizations. Our task is to quantify that.
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  3. Once we have the criteria determined, we could work with managers and develop profiles of the high performers in each group. We would try to find commonalities and things we could identify during the screening process that might predict success. These could be competencies, activities they engage in, work methods, or processes. There are many firms who can help you determine these critical success factors, as they are often called, and even help you develop tests to identify them.
  4. We could find out where THE kinds of people you want to hire go and what they like to do. This is necessary so that you can target your advertising toward them or decide which events are worth attending. To do this well requires a focus on competitive intelligence, or CI. CI is well known in the industrial world; many companies employ CI experts to ferret our information about production capacities and equipment installations at competitors. The same principles apply to recruiting. You can gather information from competitors and from vendors and suppliers about where good people may be located. You can certainly use your employee referral program for the same purpose. Every time you actually find a person with the right profile and skill set, ask them where more people like them are. One of the most useful ways to collect information is to ask incoming new hires for referrals and for general information.
  5. Collecting and capturing this information is critical. The knowledge you gradually accumulate is valuable and should be put into some sort of database where it can be shared with other recruiters. This is a form of knowledge management and, when properly done, it can save thousands of hours of work and money. After all, headhunters rely on there own human knowledge management systems (i.e. their brains) to do this all the time. Our challenge is to make this more broadly accessible and to keep it current. I like to think about these sorts of databases as the recruiters’ gossip place. It is an online forum for chatting about competitors, successes, and failures. It’s also a place for collecting bits and pieces of information that, while they may not alone be valuable, when combined with other bits can represent a treasure trove.
  6. It is more important that ever to develop people into high performers. The recruiting function has to move to becoming a talent agency ó something it has not yet been. Talent agencies recognize talent and develop it for strategic purposes. We as recruiters need take our knowledge of what talent looks like and offer people who have it a chance to get the skills they need to get the jobs we have. Mostly this will apply to the current employee population, but it could apply to people outside as well. The only limits are our own vision and our ability to work the politics of our corporate environments. One way to find those with talent would be to open all our screening processes to anyone and then select those who seem likely to be successful. The Internet and our recruiting websites make this very easy to do. The development could be in the form of classroom training, e-learning, internships, special programs that train a group of people for specific jobs within a company, or action (work-based) learning assignments.

The key is that recruiting is not only about finding talent, but also increasingly about developing it. If we are to move our profession upwards, these things I have described is what it is going to take.

Kevin Wheeler is a globally known speaker, author, futurist, and consultant in talent management, human capital acquisition and learning & development. He has founded a number of organizations including the Future of Talent Institute, Global Learning Resources, Inc. and the Australasian Talent Conference, Ltd. He hosts Future of Talent Retreats in the U.S., Europe, and Australia. He writes frequently on LinkedIn, is a columnist for, keynotes, and speaks at conferences and events globally, and advises firms on talent strategy. He has authored two books and hundreds of articles and white papers. He has a new book on recruiting that will be out in late summer of 2016. Prior to his current work, he had a 20+year corporate career in several San Francisco area tech and financial service firms. He has also been on the faculty of San Francisco State University and the University of San Francisco. He can be reached at


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