A Simpler Way of Identifying Talent

Excerpt from Chapter 4 of The Talent Wave: Why Succession Planning Fails and What to Do About It by David Clutterbuck (Kogan Page, September 2012).

By David Clutterbuck

Talent managementsystems are built upon the assumption that talent can be identified with relative ease and accuracy. This assumption is questionable for a number of reasons.

First, in practice, talent is often emergent. It sometimes takes time to become obvious to the talent holder and to observers. Someone may need to be placed in a stretching situation, which stimulates them to exercise a talent, before they recognize it as such.

Second, talent involves aptitude and application. Malcolm Gladwell (2008) makes a strong case that people we regard as exceptionally talented have:

  1. Been in the right place at the right time; and
  2. Put in many thousands of hours of practice. People of equal potential who have not been given the opportunity to gain the practice hours tend to be seen as less talented.

Third, perception of talent is prone to enormous bias. Some of the most common sources of bias include:

Gender bias. Experiments to determine gender bias in candidates for fictitious CEO jobs show a fairly consistent preference for male candidates—except where several male predecessors have failed and the organization is in crisis (Bruckmüller and Branscombe, 2010). Perceptions of leadership competences are based upon male behaviorsand, therefore, often fail to value female leader behaviors. The problem is made worse because “Women on their way up the corporate ladder get caught in two traps: the assumption that women and men have the same leadership qualities and the belief that they must imitate male leadership behaviour in order to succeed” (Vanderbroeck, 2010).

Success bias. Psychologist professor Adrian Furnham defines talent in terms of ability to learn from experience. People who have made mistakes and learned from them ought, in principle, to be valued for their insights. However, human instinct tends to make us shy away from failure, so we assign more credibility to someone who has never failed (and, therefore, probably never tried that hard!).

Flattery bias. When leaders override objective evidence to ensure the progress of favorites, what is happening? According to U.S. author and coaching guru Marshall Goldsmith, it’s in large part plain old “sucking up” (Goldsmith, 2003). He explains: “If leaders say they discourage sucking up, why does it happen so often? Here’s a straightforward answer: Without meaning to, we all tend to create an environment where people learn to reward others with accolades that aren’t really warranted. We can see this very clearly in other people. We just can’t see it in ourselves.”

Leadership qualities bias. Melvin Sorcher and James Brant (2002) have focused their studies particularly on CEO succession. They find that good candidates often are overlooked, because they don’t meet unevidenced assumptions about what a CEO should be like. One of these assumptions related to ambition. They explain (p. 136): “A perceived lack of ambition has scuttled many a promotion. ‘I’m not sure how hungry she is’ or ‘He seems to lack that fire in the belly’ are common criticisms. Unfortunately, executives forget that a person’s ambition can be understated. Indeed, we have found that exceptional leaders are modest and display little ambition, even though on the inside they are fiercely competitive. In fact, a high degree of personal humility is far more evident among exceptional leaders than raw ambition.”

Some years ago, I was asked by a somewhat paternalistic financial services company to help it get the message across to a group of graduate trainees that they had limited career prospects in the organization. Drawn from two years’ intakes, they were seen as having very little leadership potential. The company recognized that it had not treated them particularly well so far—the person running the graduate placement scheme recently had been moved on and had clearly been seen to have failed in the role.

We agreed to run a two-day “manage your own career” workshop for the graduates. First, however, they would work in three teams to carry out interviews inside and outside the company to produce a report on how career opportunities would evolve in the company and in the sector.

On the first day of the workshop, we gave them a thick, sealed ring binder and told them: “This contains the company’s plans for your future. You are not to unseal it until instructed to.” The initial sessions of the workshop covered themes such as intrapreneurship, then finally they were asked to open their binders. The first few pages were blank. So were all the others. “You have to write and manage your own career plan,” we told them.

In the afternoon, they were tasked with preparing a presentation to top management about their research project. They all gathered, waiting for us to tell them what to do. “Oh, no,” we said. “It’s your presentation. You decide how to put it together. We’re off to the bar.”

From time to time, we put our heads round the door to see if they needed any specific help. They didn’t. Within 30 minutes, one of the group, a young man who had been identified by his manager as particularly lacking in leadership potential, was in the center of the room, directing traffic. There was a flurry of purposeful activity.

At 5 p.m., the directors arrived to hear the presentation, which was concise, structured, and innovative. The graduates all took a turn presenting and were, for the most part, confident and clear. Afterward, the directors took me aside. “Are these really the people we’d written off?” they asked.

On subsequent investigation, it emerged that the graduates had never really been given an opportunity to develop or demonstrate their leadership potential. Within three months of the workshop, almost all had been promoted into more responsible jobs in other departments, with one, who had no interest in leading others, finding a specialist technical role in which he could expand. They were finally on the leadership ladder!

Here’s a proposition, based on asking HR professionals to define the critical qualities they associate with talent. People belong in the talent pool if they demonstrate:

  • Significant continued investment in their own development
  • A track record of assisting the development of others—for example, through coaching or mentoring
  • Ambition to achieve greater responsibilities
  • A high motivation and ability to learn

Without these basic competences, an employee is unlikely to develop the competences needed for more senior roles. Instead of viewing role- or managerial-level competencies as fixed and generic, organizations might do better to seek to fill roles with people who have the ability to work out the competencies that are currently and specifically needed and to adapt themselves accordingly.

Excerpt from Chapter 4 of The Talent Wave: Why Succession Planning Fails and What to Do About Itby David Clutterbuck (Kogan Page, September 2012). Copyright 2012 by David Clutterbuck. Reproduced by permission of Kogan Page. 

David Clutterbuck is visiting professor at Sheffield Hallam and Oxford Brookes Universities in the UK and co-founder and special ambassador for The European Mentoring and Coaching Council. He has written 53 books on cutting-edge management topics; HR Magazinelisted him as one of the top 25 most influential thinkers in the field of Human Resources.

Lorri Freifeld
Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training APEX Awards and Emerging Training Leaders. A writer/editor for the last 30 years, she has held editing positions at a variety of publications and holds a Master’s degree in journalism from New York University.