This is part one of a 2-part post.
One of the earliest pieces in this series looked at a truism in human performance – any population will form a normal distribution – the bell curve – the highest and lowest performers will be minorities and the bulk of people will be somewhere in between. As a truism it gives EB-HR managers great confidence when they use it to analyse organisational strengths and weaknesses.
It is also perfectly adaptable to any type of organisation. If we take Goldman Sachs as an example, we know they offer some of the highest rewards in banking, which might lead you to believe they only employ great performers (i.e. their performance curve is skewed to the right), but the performance curve is always relative, so even Goldman Sachs will always have some people who are deemed to be under-performers relative to what their best achieve. It is also worth adding that their ‘worst’ might be much better than the ‘best’ their competitors have to offer. In effect, other banks start from a lower base (as shown in the graphic).
Let us apply this simple tool and insight to what has come to be called ‘talent management’.
It is a decade since ‘The war for talent’ was published by Harvard Business Press – regular readers of this blog book will know I hold HBP responsible for publishing some spectacularly vacuous management books – and history has proven the authors so wrong (McKinsey’s chose Enron as a paragon). From the very beginning the more astute management critics could see there was no substance behind McKinsey’s hype and even Wikipedia points out that the authors failed to define ‘talent’. Yet this has never deterred ‘talent managers’ from selling their non-evidence-based, indefinable wares with great enthusiasm.
In the age of evidence-based HR let us at least get back to some basics. Whether you can define talent or not we all know it is rare – that’s why we give it a name – and we also know you can only manage what you measure, even though the non-evidence-based refute this*. Ideally the measures will be objective (output, cost, revenue, quality) but a subjective measure is better than no measure at all.
One group we naturally associate with having innate talents are sportspeople; whether they be high jumpers, footballers or basketball stars. Their performance is measured every time they compete (height, goals, baskets) and we tend to read across to say how talented they are (e.g. the top goal scorer in the league must be one of the most talented) knowing that the context, and their team-mates, have a significant part to play in their success. We also recognise some people as being highly talented despite poor performance – they are ‘off form’. So there is no automatic correlation between talent and performance; we just have to keep working at making the best of whatever talents we have at our disposal.
It is an HR dictum that you should ‘hire for talent and attitude’ because we cannot endow people with attributes they do not possess. You cannot give someone a talent and trying to change a bad attitude is more trouble than it is worth but if we want to manage talent it is worth measuring it. Try it now by focusing on one particular talent – say negotiating. I picked this one because it encapsulates many of the common issues surrounding discussions about talent. You can teach negotiating skills (e.g. save your big guns for later, when you say ‘no’ mean no) and train in how to prepare for a negotiation (e.g. what information do you have about the other side, how high can you afford to go?) but we all know good negotiators who just have a passion for negotiating and a personality that enables them to get away with things that others cannot – they have a natural talent for it.
If you send managers on negotiation training it can become evidence-based (without perfect evidence) by giving each trainee a baseline score from 1 to 10 before they start (as explained here) but also consider a few people who are not automatically on the list – they might have a talent as yet untapped. For anyone getting a 3 or less I would recommend saving time and money by taking them off the list. Anyone between 4 and 7 will probably need some motivating to improve their negotiating ability (they don’t have a natural talent and/or it is something they do not welcome) and with the 8 and over’s it might be worth considering what successes they have actually had before sitting down with them to try and work out what makes them so good. If you are clever enough you might even help to make some of it rub off on the others.
As with everything in HR though it is never entirely straightforward is it? Talent is not a one-way street; it can bring with it all sorts of problems and unexpected consequences. Recognising talent can create primadonnas, prompt them to demand too much, encourage them to move elsewhere or just disrupt the team. Defining talent does not help much and calling it a ‘competence’ just confuses the issue.
The only thing that matters is that you at least have some measures that tell you two things – you believe you are getting better at ‘it’ and ‘it’ is improving your performance. Alternatively if you think talent cannot be measured, because it is ‘intangible’, don’t be surprised if it never produces anything tangible.
*Those who say you cannot measure ‘intangibles’ like talent and leadership seem to have missed the obvious point that they have already attached some relative importance to it – a subjective measure that says it is more important than the other things they could be doing.