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 (


Hire Talent, not Experience! (and 5 Simple Steps to Find the Talent You Need)

3427501183Recruiting is a pain.  It is hard to get right, and so painful and damaging to get wrong.

We make it so much harder on ourselves when we focus on experience.  Here is my controversial statement for today:  experience is no indication of ability or success.  Makes sense, right?  I might have cooked a lasagna, but it doesn’t mean it is any good.  I might have drawn a picture, but it could be awful.  And the harder the task, the less likely that experience alone is any indication of success. So, of all the folks who have done a job like the one you want done, most have not been very good at it.

Then why do we only look for folks who have done the job before that we want done now?  Is it that we just don’t have the patience, process, or ability to train someone to do the work?  Admittedly, if I can find a talented person who has also done the job before, then we have the best of both worlds.  Just realize you may not have that option.

The best Manufacturing Engineer I ever hired spent the first part of his career as a cook.  The best Project Manager I have ever worked with had spent most of her career as a Manufacturing Engineering.  The best Operations Manager I knew spent the last 5 years as a naval officer.  You can see, though, that in each of these examples the earlier work developed or built upon a talent that mattered to their next role.  As a cook, the engineer learned how to simplify complex tasks, to break things down, and to add some creativity into his work.   As a Manufacturing Engineer, the future PM learned to understand tasks, priorities, and milestones as they flowed in the real world.  And she did so with attention to detail and discipline that the best PMs would recognize.

So, stop scanning resumes for a narrow set of experiences.  You are wasting your time.  Instead….

1.  Identify the talents, the basic attitudes and attributes, of the very best people doing that job.  Now you have a target that matters!

2.  To find folks like this, think of jobs where such people thrive.  That might be a job like the one you are looking to fill, but there are certainly others as well.   Now you can look at someone’s resume and consider experience from the talent-centered point of view.

3.  By all means, if there is some critical knowledge or experience you must have, identify it.  But don’t go overboard.  Talented people learn quickly and adapt.

4.  Signs of great talent often include:  a positive, energetic attitude;  curiosity and a passion for learning;  a solid record of doing important things in their chosen field.

5.  Absolutely must avoid:  any kind of negativity or negative attitude; a tendency to attribute their problems to the fault of others; a solo player – great teams are held together by relationships, no hermits welcome.

Now go forth, and build that great team!


Related Content:

1.  How Great Manager Define Talent (

2.  Your Best Employee May not Have Industry Experience, (

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!

Mistakes Leaders Make: Silo Building (and 4 Ways to Tear them Down)

178796318We have all heard the advice to reach outside of our functional silo, to play for the big team, to build cross-functional relationships.

Yet we build silos as fast as we can make them, and we then wonder why people have trouble working together,  leveraging each others’ talents.

Why We Build Silos

Silos form from honest enough intentions:  folks with similar experiences, qualifications, and expertise naturally come together to share experiences, to solve problems, to learn from each other.  We want that, we encourage that.  We colocate  people with the same functional expertise.  We form Engineering Departments and Marketing Departments and Sales Teams and wrap processes around these functions to preserve lessons learned and improve performance.  These  teams develop their own culture, play a role in the hiring of new team members, develop each other.  All good stuff.

Much has been written about how people  form tribes in the workplace.  Tribes certainly form across functional groups, but this desire to associate informally helps drive the building of silos.

We think of the “silo mentality” as some kind of active attempt to form and push an isolated, distorted view.  But the reality is that this isolated mentality is the natural result of our team structure:   our formation of these functional groups comes at a cost – an insular view of things, a group think full of one point of view and devoid for the most part of the influences of the views of folks from other tribes/functional groups/silos.

Or, at least, that is the picture if we don’t bridge the silos and lower the barriers.

What We Can Do About It

So, whether you want/encourage  it or not, informal and formal silos abound.  Yet a healthy flow of views and information and relationships can occur between and among these silos – the walls can virtually fall away – when leadership takes a few simple steps:

1.  Strong cross-functional teams, co-located and led by an empowered cross-functional leader.  To bridge silos you have to well, build a bridge.  Not only organize project teams cross-functionally (as many of us do in Matrix organizations) but also co-locate teams together.  This is actually somewhat rare in my experience that the Marketing and R&D and Advanced Manufacturing and Quality people on a team sit together.  But it works really, really well.  And don’t bother to appoint a cross-functional leader, such as a Project Manager, unless that person has lots of  leeway to make decisions and  authority with the team.

2.  Time and relationships.  Members of a tribe hang out with each other.  To break down silos, folks from different silos need to spend time together, and that will require  encouragement, even some ice-breaking activities.  Team-building exercises may be a bit corny, but some pizzas as part of a regular routine can go a long way.

3.  Formal incentives.  Recognizing teams and individuals who reach across silos is critical.  You will get the things you incentivize/recognize/reward.  And folks can’t emulate behavior that don’t know anything about.

4.  Lead by Example.  If you want cross-silo relationships, you have to reach out to leaders in other functions, spend time with other teams, build cross-silo relationships yourself.  You have to be, as they say, congruent to what you are preaching – and perfectly so.

We are not going to stop building functional and expertise-based teams – but we have really work at avoiding the formation of thick, impenetrable silo walls.

Related Content:

1.  A deeper look at organizational silos:  Break out of the Silo Mentality (

2.  Some good stuff on the consequence of silos in the world of software development:  Breaking Down Silos, Part I (

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.

Quit Beating Around the Bush: 6 Steps to Making Difficult Conversations Successful (and Bearable!)

suncloudsHe so badly wanted the manufacturing management job, but he was just not showing the  talent to lead and care for a team.

As his manager, I  knew he dreamed of leading the group – he had been talking out it to his peers more and more.  That’s the only way I could figure it out – he would not really discuss it with me.  In fact, he had said on more than one occasion, “I wouldn’t really want to do that job.”   Confusing, eh?

It was time for that difficult conversation – the one that would let him know the company did not see him as management material, that this particular dream was not going to happen anytime soon.   But I really, really hate those conversations – the ones that close doors in someone’s career.  So I waited.  And I sort of dodged the issues in our one on one conversations.  Uggh.

One morning I snapped out of my glass-half empty, negative view of the situation.  He was good technically, a strong problem-solver, and could no doubt advance in his career by gaining mastery on the technical side, maybe coming back to leadership from that angle.  So now I had the positive, call-to-action destination for our conversation:  focus on using your technical strengths to help the organization, and you will be on a much more satisfying track to success.

Does this example sound familiar – have you ever delayed an important conversation because it would be difficult?  If so, hear are some steps that will help:

1.  Stop the negative self-talk!  Stop telling yourself, “I have to talk to Jim.”  The words “have to” are too passive, playing too much the victim.  Make a choice, step to up to assert control of the situation – tell yourself, “I choose to talk to Jim, because it’s the right thing to do.” [this concept inspired by the excellent book The Now Habit, by Neil Fiore]

2.  Identify your mission.  We must be very intentional about what we want out of a difficult conversation.  What emotional result, what follow-up actions – we want the individual to leave motivated to make a change with  enough hope and clarity to take specific actions in that direction.

3.  Do your homework.   It is likely that at team member needing course correction does not really see the key issues clearly – he/she is probably stuck in a confirmation bias where they only see the information that supports their current course.  So put together the clearest, most fact-based description of why change is needed, and why the new plan addresses the core issues.

4.  Choose your setting carefully.  If this is a meeting to motivate change but not to emphasize consequences, then choose a relaxed setting.  A meeting over coffee, for example, will make everyone less defensive.  If the time has come to paint a bleak picture, a more formal setting is in order.  You get the idea.

5.  Be prepared to listen.  What the team member has to say is critical to your understanding of the difficult issues – it may change your view of this situation.  Ask questions to search out his/her views.    Be open to new information which might help you influence things in a positive direction.

6.  Be brief, move toward action.  With all the preparation, be concise and clear.  Identify the situation, and then listen.  Move the conversation toward constructive action taking the team member’s views into account.

Not so painful, once you have a plan, right?  An effective, intentional discussion that leads to positive action.  Not a bad day’s work.

Do Managers Really Matter?

2200500024Many of us know people ( or maybe entire teams) who believe  managers don’t matter.

The kind of “manager” we are discussing here focuses on coordination, orchestration, and people-related tasks – the overhead of running a team or organization.   Things like making goals clear, providing resources, recruiting, providing performance feedback and career development, making big picture decisions about the business and the people – that kind of thing.

So you might be able to see how this kind of manager might appear sort of extra.  After all, managers aren’t actually playing the music, carrying the football, or writing the software.    I once had a reasonably savvy boss question my plan to hire a manager by asking, “so you need to bring in this other guy to tell the experts what do?”   The implication being that the right team of experts would not need much management.  Hmm.

Let’s use the technique from my last blog post to test whether there is truth in this managers-don’t-matter idea.  Let’s give it some validity, look for facts that support it…

Take the example of self-conducting orchestra.  The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra ,  founded in 1972, has been conductorless since its inception.  Leadership roles shift to different musicians depending on the demands of the piece performed.  This team of about 20 musicians performs some of the most complex classical-music to world-class standards.  But we see that there is a leadership role in a given piece assigned to a specific musician.  So this is more like a rotating-conductor model (admittedly, a conductor and manager are different, but they are similar in key ways – work with me here).  One might reasonably wonder how this scales, whether it works for a large orchestra.

Or consider WL Gore and Associates.  As described in a post on the guardian website,

” In Gore’s self-regulating system, all the normal management rules are reversed. In this back-to-front world, leaders aren’t appointed: they emerge when they accumulate enough followers to qualify as such.”

A very successful company where the leaders/managers emerge.  But they still exist.

The reality is that the need for a great coach, conductor, platoon commander, or company manager exists.  The question is how to identify and appoint these folks.  Or whether to distribute their leadership roles  among people in the team.  Evidence from the world of sports, or music, or the military would seem to show that if a leader is not identified, one will emerge – that the need for clear goals, for decisiveness, for coordination, and for handling the overhead of running a team demands that a  team leader-coach exist, and that the manager in a business serves (or should serve) this role to be, well, useful.  Such a person needs pursue excellence in management in the same way an excellent violinist continuously practices and refines her craft.

The Gallup organization has performed extensive studies of management, management skills, and taken on the task of defining “Great Managers.”  Great managers do specific things to establish an engaging work environment and to build team engagement.  And there is significant and measurable impact on profits/outcomes that occurs where engagement is higher.  Take a look at these Gallup posts here and here, which make a compelling, data-based case that…managers do matter.

What do you think?