As ‘talent’ and its availability continues to be the top concern of 75% of CEOs globally, CIPD asked a more fundamental question in its latest research: what do we understand by the term ‘talent’ and how do you know that someone is talented?

Partnering with HCLI, for its new report, CIPD identified four ways in which thinkers and decision makers, primarily in Singapore and the region, are defining ‘talent’.

#1 Ability to learn, evolve and adapt

The ability and drive to stay up to date, in changing environments and keeping an eye on what’s over the horizon, is key to understanding and responding to complexity.

CIPD’s panel of experts commented: “The trouble with the bottom 10% (underperformers) is that they don’t learn well or efficiently and so cannot adapt to the changing demands of the workplace and general economy.’”

The majority of CIPD’s panel rejected the binary of talent versus non-talent, arguing that it is relative, contextual and heavily dependent on opportunity to demonstrate one’s potential: “While one is not a talent in one particular area or field, one can be a talent in another.”

#2 Ability to create and innovate

“I consider ‘talent’ as someone who has the potential to break new ground in their claimed area of expertise; otherwise, one is simply doing what one is trained to do,” noted an expert on CIPD’s panel.

For creativity to flourish, CIPD cited Prof Teresa Amabile at Harvard University calling out four determining forces: domain expertise; creative thinking (i.e. personality traits, flexible cognitive style); intrinsic motivation; and socio-environmental influences.

However, the panel noted that Singapore’s culture typically rewards conformism and failure is regarded negatively, which affects the attractiveness of pursuing higher-risk career choices.

#3 Delivery of results effectively and efficiently: high-performing individuals

The majority of CIPD’s experts agreed ‘talent’ is not about having special abilities and skills per se, but the delivery of outstanding results and the outperforming of peers that matters – for example, “A talent is only a talent when they are deployed and contribute to a specific purpose.”

However, there were different views about what constitutes high performance, illustrated by the case of a Netflix employee (McCord 2014).

She was a bright bookkeeper who had innovated the royalty system, but when the company became public, her skills were no longer needed. The company needed experienced and certified accountants.

Essentially, Netflix changed their business model, rendering a high-performing employee with a prized skillset a low-performer.

CIPD cited a 2012 research by O’Boyle and Aguinis , where consistently the results showed that performance does not follow the classic bell curve, where there is an equivalent number of people above and below average.

As a result, the concept of ‘average’ becomes meaningless because there are more outliers.

#4 Potential

“Current performance alone is insufficient. … Talent needs to demonstrate potential for growth,” said one of CIPD panelists, while another noted, “Without performance, potential cannot be exhibited.”

Clearly, there is a relationship between potential and performance – be it in delivering success in the future, recognising something of value others may have missed, or the ability to learn and adapt.

However, CIPD noted the difference on one strategic aspect. High-performers are defined by the excellent results delivered in their current role, while high-potentials have the qualities to succeed in future roles (Amabile and Pillemer 2012, Silzer and Church 2009). The two do not always co-exist.

Besides having the right qualities, high-potential individuals need a nurturing environment, as
highlighted by CIPD’s experts, one of whom said, “Besides identifying talent… it is also important to provide a nurturing environment for potential talent in an organisation and the opportunities for any potential talent to emerge.”

“Objectively, they must also be given sufficient resources, room to innovate and experiment, and
challenges to take them to higher levels of achievement.”

What’s your take on the most important characteristics of talent today? What criteria do you use in context of your industry and skill situation? Share with us in the comments!

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