Many things have been said about talent over the centuries, and not just by wise men or women: in selecting the quotes that follow shortly, I excluded many that contrast talented with genius (and often revealed a tragic lack of modesty). Many of these comments have focused on the application of this charismatically abstract and elusive attribute. Geothe commented that “Great talent finds happiness in execution”, Balzac that “There is no such thing as a great talent without great will power”, Irving Berlin that ”Talent is only the starting point”, and Nero – sadly better known for his violin playing than his leadership – that “”Hidden talent counts for nothing.”

There’s little dissent from that view that talent is always an asset. But while any organisation (or, of course, any right-thinking individual) would want to be confident that they can make the best of ‘A Good Thing’, there is a more basic initial difficulty – not so much of “knowing a good thing when we see it” as of knowing whether what we are seeing is or isn’t A Good Thing.

This isn’t to ignore the continuing arguments as to whether talent is born or made (we’ll refer you to our review of Matthew Syed’s Bounce and move swiftly on), but to recognise that identifying rising talents is not straightforward. Illustrating an argument with populist examples is a cheap bloggers’ ploy, but it does help to put the point into a readily graspable form. Consider, despite the huge efforts (and budgets) invested in identifying world-beating new talents and launching them on their careers, the surprisingly low number of lasting careers that Simon Cowell has generated and the low retention rate among those The Apprentice contenders that have managed to successfully land the coveted job with Sir/Lord Sugar. (In this, Cowell and Sugar are perhaps just the latest in a line of those making careers out of the entertainment provided by others. As Fred Allen once commented: “Ed Sullivan will be around as long as someone else has talent.”)

That’s not to say that Talent Managers are effectively just chat or panel show hosts, whose careers depend on the talents of others rather than their own. But neither are they merely talent scouts – a talent manager needs to have robust criteria and methodologies to identify potential, and strategies to apply to fledgling talents that will enable them to prosper. Wherein lies the rub.

Assessing talent and potential is not the same as assessing performance: the past – equipped as we are with hindsight when we view it – is far easier to interpret and analyse, but not necessarily a guide to the future. Whether we believe talent is born or made, its trajectory is not neatly fatalistic. (As talent development programmes – or indeed any learning intervention – are predicated by a belief that we can improve things by intervening positively, this should come as no surprise.)

Assessing talent and potential is about identifying the people who will succeed not just at the next level but in the requirements and roles of the future: you can promote people into yesterday’s leadership positions if you wish, but the world will not stop moving forward to oblige you. This, of course, has implications for the assessment process. Like leadership itself, future potential – in any role – is not just about skills or knowledge.

It is also about less literal factors as engagement, aspiration, agility and hunger for learning and development, a willingness to identify and address development challenges, adopt new approaches and change behaviours. (Nor is the interplay of these factors entirely as might be predicted: potential talents that have ability and engagement but lack aspiration or ambition are far more likely to succeed as those with ambition but without engagement. It’s not so much that power corrupts; it’s more that the desire for a position of authority and responsibility is not a reliable indicator of someone’s ability to fulfil its requirements.) Future success is also about personality, organisational and cultural fit: if your square holes are turning into round ones, developing a new generation of square pegs will have a predictable, uncomfortable and unproductive outcome. You’ll also need to reconsider your recruitment process.

Talent is a multi-faceted story, and its development and the realisation of its potential requires substantial effort. Organisations must also accept that it takes effort not merely on the part of the talented: those responsible for managing and implementing the developing and realising process must apply themselves diligently too. Our comments in the opening paragraph aside, talent does share one characteristic with genius: a high proportion of perspiration to inspiration. To develop the most capable people to appropriately fill the roles of the future means that an organisation must consider talent management in parallel with competency frameworks, job design and succession planning as well as assessment centre design and performance management practices: unweaving the threads cannot hope to strengthen the fabric.

This does not mean that Talent Managers face only difficulty, struggle and eternal watchfulness, although the latter will certainly be required. ASK’s strategic partners, MDA Leadership Consulting, offers one of the most comprehensive and rigorous methods of assessing management and executive skills, fit, and potential. Using assessment centre technology—where individuals complete standardised testing and personality inventories, work-style interviews, and business simulation exercises—produces better hiring decisions and provides clear recommendations about how to help a new hire be successful. They also offer a wide variety of assessment services to gauge the skills, fit, and leadership potential of candidates at all levels of the talent pipeline. These services include cost-effective online and phone solutions for large-volume hires at the professional entry-level and supervisor levels, and increasingly robust solutions for leaders ranging from new managers to function leaders and senior executives.

If a little levity will provide a fillip to encourage Talent Managers to grasp the nettle, two familiar jokes spring to mind. Firstly, the old adage that “it’s not what you’ve got, it’s what you do with it”. (Attributed to, among others, Mae West. Blonde but not dumb, she also observed that “An ounce of performance is worth pounds of promises”, “Anything worth doing is worth doing slowly”, and “I believe that it’s better to be looked over than it is to be overlooked.” Ms West had a firm grasp of talent management.) But the best nutshell advice on talent goes to an old joke, the origins of which are much disputed:

Q: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?”

A: “Practice, practice, practice!”

Just remember that Jack Benny had to work for many years to have the audience to tell that joke to, and to keep pace with a changing entertainment industry while he did so.

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