Defining the word “Talent” – and 4 Action Steps to Get More of It!

7987532186After my last post, Hire Talent, Not Experience!, some folks wanted to know more about what I mean by the word “talent”, and what specific things they can do to better identify and recruit talent.

Cool, those are essential questions if we want to turn this concept into action.

I think the general definition of talent used by the Gallup Organization is a good one:   “Talents are naturally recurring patterns of thought, feeling, or behavior that can be productively applied.”  But if you think about it, that general definition leaves all the work to you, oh dedicated leader of people.  Because you have to figure out all the key pieces:

– What recurring patterns of thought, feeling, or behavior produce results in your world/business/team?

– How do you move the talented person from “can be productively applied” to “performed brilliantly, nailed it!”

In my experience, intuition is helpful but not really enough.  You have to be intentional and specific in the way you think about talent in your context.  Here is a diagram that I use occasionally to describe the search for great product development talent, where the key talents of interest are shown as dimensions:

Talent chart

There are probably more dimensions than this to consider, but in this example I have defined 3 recurring patterns that predict the performance of a product development engineer on an engineering task:  Technical Ability, Relationship Forming, and Creativity.  I could probably add Attention to Detail but bear with me.

The point is that on a continual basis you will want to evaluate these “factors” in your team members (locate them in the talent “space,” consider how these talents correlate with results,  and begin to create a specific set of the key talent dimensions that predict success for a particular role in your organization/environment.

Here are Actions Steps that will help you get more of the talent you need:

1. Study your top performers.  Is there a combination of these talents that occur over and over again in your top performers?  A certain amount of creativity that is needed to do the job?  A certain minimum quality of technical thought processes?  These might mark key success factors for the role.  You just need to have a certain minimum level to succeed on our team.

2. Evaluate the mix of talents on successful teams, and the gaps in talent in your organization.  What range of talents would add important elements to the team, create needed diversity of talent, complement other members?  Here you are putting together that special recipe for the team that usually benefits from a range of complementary talents.

3. Create the talent profile you need.  There will be a range of talents you can accept – you want to think about this before people start interviewing for the job.  At this point you will not only have a stronger target for your search, but you will have a meaningful language to discuss how candidates would affect the team and perform in the role.

Important Caution:  Do not use this system as a back-and-white, go/no-go screen.  Talent is hard to identify and always a subjective criteria at some level.  And you might find that someone high in one talent might not be the ideal fit but might complement others who are low in that talent.  You might find a team recipe that works with a particular person’s talents in a special way you had not considered – sort of like an unusual case of item #2 above.

4.  Develop screening tools.  Consider not just interview questions, but specific problems or situations that reveal the focus talents for the role.  Run each candidate through as wide array of questions and evaluations as feasible to understand his/her talents.

I know this is harder than it sounds.  But try this out for a critical opening on your team, run a pilot project to see if this helps.  Let me know how it goes!

Do have any thoughts on this or related ideas?  Let me know by commenting below…

Related Content:

1.  Exactly What is Talent, Anyway? (

2.  How to Identify Your Employees’ Hidden Talents (

3.  Identifying and Developing Talent (


Loving the Innovation but Hating the Innovator (Our Innovation Management is Backwards)

5409707708Almost of all of us, and all of our organizations, want innovation – to introduce new and significant things into the world.  Sometimes we are seeking ground-breaking, business transforming products.  Sometimes we  just want a compelling idea or two that can take us to the next level.

But too often we want to change the world without really having to deal with the messy internal dynamics needed to foster, feed, and ultimately bring innovation to the world.

In my earlier blog post, 5 Ways You Might be Killing Innovation, I mentioned that strong cultures kill innovation, to the extent those cultures reject different, new things – things that are, well, counter-cultural.  Despite the obviousness of this, when we decide we want innovation, we do not attack the issue at its root – the way our change-averse cultures disengage innovators and, critically, the creative side of just about everyone.  This is why this topic very much belongs in a Servant Leadership blog – because to get this right, we need to serve the innovators, and the creative part of everyone in the organization.

So here is where our Innovation Management is backwards: 1)  it focuses on the end results – “We need more innovation!” –  first without looking at it from the source – the  innovators’  point of view and experiences within our culture, and 2) we are not thinking about how every person in our organization has creative potential – we are looking to the R&D/Engineering guys, or maybe the Marketing folks.

Too often, the demand to innovate comes from the very same leaders who see the counter-cultural innovators as a threat to cultural stability and consistency.   In other words, we love the innovation but Hate the Innovator!

Be brutally honest with yourself – do you see the innovators marginalized and talked about with frowns or rolling eyes?  I have seen this so many times I have lost count.

So, the  groundbreaking (even innovative!) approach to foster innovation is to

  • focus on your people – look deeply at the signals, incentives, and experiences they are having in your culture.  Encourage and incentivize crazy, creative ideas.
  • Ask them what they need, what they recommend to boost creative output.  Seek out a list of the obstacles to innovation from their point of view.
  •  Involve your most innovative people in forming the steps you are going to take as a leader.

Formulate actions that change the conditions at the root, where the innovator lives.

In short, love the innovators!

5 Ways You Might be Killing Innovation

5451831228Innovators – truly ground-breaking, revolutionary thinkers – are not like you and I.

I know I am generalizing terribly, but bear with me.

Those who discover something truly new, invent something that is a leap beyond the state-of-the-art, defy conventional thinking – these rare and inspirational figures do not normally just confine their creativity and unconventional approach to one narrow area of their lives.

Think about a great innovator you know.  Is  this person comfortable in a conventional corporate setting, dressed in conventional business casual clothes, following company rules and norms?  Or does this person – uniquely able to move beyond the constraints that bind most of our thinking – march to their own drummer across many areas of life?

And here is my point for today – how does your organization, and your leadership, treat those who consistently buck the norms, defy the conventions?  My guess is that something like “organ rejection” occurs over time, and they leave, are forced out, or get tired of the fight and conform.  It is just very hard for a culture to accept counter-culture elements.  The danger is not only does a strong set of cultural norms alienate the most innovative people, but it likely reduces the level of creativity and innovation in everyone to some extent.  

Here are 5 things you might be doing that kill innovation throughout your organization and culture:

1.  The leader as cultural guardian:  You might feel your role is partly to establish and preserve culture, and so you police the conversations and decisions for counter-culture elements.  Your team knows that in certain situations there is a certain way of thinking that is “right,” and they better give the “right answer” or expect consequences.   This approach has advantages, and may lead to a strong team dynamic, but it is toxic to innovation over time.

2. No constraints, no specifics, just think big:   In this style of leadership, management lets the innovators do what they do best and any specific constraint is seen as  “limiting innovation.” This is similar to “The Cowboy” from Scott Anthony’s HBR blog post on Innovation Assassins.  But this is not how productive creativity really works:  creative minds are inspired by a particular difficult/interesting problem or challenge – it is the constraints that make it interesting, that make it difficult, that direct the energy of the innovators.  It is much better to set a goal, to set constraints (such as time, or cost, or function) as needed such that the innovative solution is actually useful to the business.

3.  Turkey shoots abound.  If you find that brainstorming and problem-solving meetings feel like bird-hunting, with a bunch of hunters shooting at a poor bird at the white board, you are going to force all the innovation underground.  Or maybe folks will be innovating how to avoid your meeting!  Not only should all criticism be constructive, but a more innovation-friendly approach is to encourage commentators to speak up only with critical information, and to  first say what is strong/good about an idea.  Detailed evaluation of  ideas is often handled best after multiple ideas are placed on the table and mulled-over together.

4.  Innovation is the job of R&D (Engineering).  We need innovation in almost every area of the business, from Sales to Supply Chain to Finance to Food Service.  Encouragement of unique approaches to problems, to unconventional ways of thinking about things should be a common theme with every team.  This is not so easy for some departments who traditionally have not been encouraged to innovate.  Whatever area of the business you lead, formally or from within the team, can benefit from incentives and rewards for innovative thinking, creative ideas, unconventional approaches.

5.  Innovators are appointed.  Innovation and innovators emerge from a special combination of interesting problems, challenging constraints, and conditions that feed and favor risk-taking.  Absolutely recruit great talent with a history of innovation.  But put tons of energy into creating an environment that rewards thoughtful risk-taking, avoids “turkey shoots,” and recognizing creative ideas ( and uses them in the business).  You will be excited by the innovators who emerge and the impact they have.

There are many good posts and features on building innovation.  A particularly interesting one highlight thin importance of culture is Nick Jankel-Elliot’s Top Tips for Building an Innovation Culture.