If We Can’t Define Talent, How Can We Find It?

About once a year I get the feeling that we aren’t making any progress in really 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 synonymous with “anyone who says yes.” But what I mean by “talent” 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. At companies like Cisco Systems, they actually quantify the contribution individuals make to the sales and profit of 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 mid-performer. They estimated the difference at 49 percent, and they said that the high-performer should be paid 42 percent 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 bonus do you think you would get? How much better would your reputation be? If we were really looking for talent, here are some of the things we would be doing as recruiters and as human resources professionals.

  1. First of all, we would work harder than we do at identifying high performers. Together with them we could establish some indicators of success or of high performance for each position we recruit for. These could be the number of sales they have made in a month, the number of reports they have written that resulted in consulting assignments, the amount of revenue their 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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  1. 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. Firms like PDI or ePredix.com provide this service.
  2. The next task is to find out where those kinds of people like to go and what they like to do. This is necessary so that you can target your advertising toward them and so that you can decide which events are worth attending in order to get at the most number of the kinds of people you seek. To do this well requires a focus on competitive intelligence, or “CI.” CI is well known in the industrial world, and 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. And, 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.
  3. But 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, can save thousands of hours of work and bunches of money. After all, headhunters rely on their 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, failures and for collecting bits and pieces of information that, alone, may not be valuable. However, when they are combined with other bits they represent a treasure trove.
  4. And finally, it becomes more important that ever to develop people to be high performers. The recruiting function has to move to becoming a talent agency ? something it has not 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 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 selecting those who seem likely to be successful. The Internet and our recruiting web sites 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 are 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 ERE.net, 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 kwheeler@futureoftalent.org.

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