Why Talent is ABUNDANT, Not Scarce

Andrew Leigh

One of the great human resources myths is the war for talent. There is no shortage of talent, and most companies are stuffed full of it. Rather, there is a widespread and shameful waste of talent, with too many employees finding little or no meaning in what they do.

What will it take to move to an inclusive view of talent? Here are five of the essentials:

1. Managerial thinking: Managers may need to move to a higher level of respect for everyone in the organization. This respect needs to take practical form, not just be a moral imperative.

For example, Google turns its inclusiveness approach into the familiar directive that its engineers can spend up to a quarter of their time on activity entirely of their own choosing.

2. Culture: People are rewarded for trying new things rather than punishing failure when events do not work out as expected.

You cannot generate such a culture merely by proclaiming it. Systems need to exist to ensure such rewards actually occur. Line managers, for instance, may need to learn to handle failure in positive, rather than negative ways.

3. Creativity: If everyone is talented in some way the main task of managers becomes unlocking the potential.

In companies with an inclusive approach, managers who cling to traditional command and control style are unlikely to survive. Instead, it requires that managers see everyone as potentially "creative." Extracting the best from them therefore demands a good understanding of the creative process.

4. Rehearsal: Leaders and managers must be able to rehearse and experiment in a safe learning environment where through experience they realize what it takes to unlock potential to a much greater degree than previously.

5. Openness: There must be openness in discovering and using talent, rather than allowing it to remain concentrated on just a few chosen individuals.

This does not prevent prioritization of resources. It implies ensuring transparency and consistency in how talent is identified and the way the resources are directed.

A useful approach to bring the inclusive approach to life is segmenting employees so as maximize the potential of each segment.

This recognizes that every employee has talent and requires a tailor-made approach to learning and career development. For example a company might adopt separate definitions of talent such as leadership talent, expertise talent and entrepreneurial talent.

Gallup estimates that within the U.S. workforce the cost of disengagement to be more than $300 billion in lost productivity alone. The whole misguided idea of a talent shortage began in the 1990s when McKinsey produced a report underlining the importance of a "talent mindset." The consequences have been widely criticized for pandering to large egos and, according to one report, even been blamed for the downfall of Enron.

The War for Talent mentality has stampeded many organizations into treating talent as such a scarce resource that some feel compelled to poach it from elsewhere. Yet subsequent research reveals that "the stars" seldom repeat their previous successes and often disappoint on arrival.

In our recent study Talent Management at the Crossroads, we talked to some of the best UK employers for managing talent. We found a clear divide. Just under half the companies we met understood talent to mean a small number of high potentials or high flyers who are seen as critical to an organization.

If talented people are gifted in some way, then clearly we are talking of the few, rather than the many. Using this definition any organization would hardly want or expect more than 3 to 5 percent of their workforce to be talents.

The majority of companies interviewed in our study though took a different and more inclusive view to talent management. To them talent management meant helping everyone in the organization reach their potential.
Often organizations are unaware of the consequences of the approach they adopt. For example one business school study has even suggested that some talent management practices might actually lead to the development of less ethical leaders.

Finally, if the inclusive approach demands that you uncover people’s potential, what is the fastest way of doing it? It may seem blindingly obvious, but try asking them! (Click on diagram to enlarge.)

Source for Diagram: Maynard Leigh & Associates