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Until a few years ago, the word “talent” was used to describe a special natural ability or aptitude – typically applied to creative pursuits like painting, singing or acting.  Nowadays the word has been co-opted by the HR community as business speak.  But what strikes me is that if I were to ask half a dozen HR leaders what “talent” means, I would probably get as many different answers.

Some organisations use the word “talent” synonymously with “workforce”.  The trouble with that approach is that with finite resources, you can’t develop everyone. You have to prioritise your efforts somehow.  And there’s a risk that if you say everybody has talent, the word becomes meaningless.

Some define talent in terms of grade – an elite group made up of those already in the top positions within the company. Others are more inclusive, encompassing those with the potential to get to the top positions, based on their attributes or traits. But this might include anything from performance and technical or business skills to behavioural competencies, attitude or values. It’s not universally agreed whether talent is something people have or something people do. And the old adage that “what you can’t measure, you can’t manage” has never been truer with today’s emphasis on performance-metricised HR processes. 

Having a shared definition of talent within your organisation is absolutely crucial to your HR strategy, from recruitment to learning and development to succession planning. It’s also important as a prophylactic, because you may find yourself having to justify the basis of your segmentation to shareholders or disgruntled employees further down the line. 

Fundamentally, there are two reliable ways to define talent, depending on the nature of your business. The first is along the twin axes of performance and potential – those who score highly in both constitute your top talent.  However, if your business relies on professional skills, look at the market scarcity of people with those skillsets together with their organisational impact.  Those with the most sought-after skills who make the biggest difference to your performance constitute your talent. 

But defining talent is only the first step.  Next, you have to find it.  The people who will truly transform your business are relatively rare. Talented people also tend to be aware of their own worth and play the field effectively.  It’s likely that your competitors will have spotted them, too, so remember that talent is precious and you may have a fight on your hands to attract and retain talented people. And that’s an art form (and another blog) in itself!  

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