Whither Talent?

women in leadership

By Adrian Furnham

To what end can talent be defined, sought out and developed? In this article Andrew Furnham discusses the different ideas of what makes a talented individual in the world of business, and how to “manage talent” within an organisation.


A. Introduction

You cannot have escaped noticing that ‘Talent Management’ has become a very fashionable topic. In some organisations the Personnel Department (which then became HR department) has been renamed the “Talent Management Department”. Does that imply that everyone is talented, making the concept redundant; or is there an equivalent Talentless Management Department who have, of course a much more difficult task?

Organisations seem to believe that their ability to attract and utilise (young) people of talent is essential to their profitability and sustainability. They may be right. Some argue that talent management is more important than strategy, corporate culture, marketing etc. in assuring the long term success of the organisation. It is thought of as the main competitive advantage.

With bull markets there is a war for talent. Many assumed there was an under-supply of talented people at all levels, and thus organisations were in a competitive battle to attract and retain as well as develop, these special, but crucial people who would ensure, they hoped, that the organisation both thrived and prospered. They were thought of as the new generation who would be required to lead the organisation into the future and ensure its survival. Now in the bear market there is a surfeit of talent; an over-supply; wasted talent.

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B. Definitions

Talent is, quite simply, not a psychological concept. One approach is to list possible synonyms for talent. These include: blessed; exceptional; experienced; flair; genius; giftedness; high potential; precocious; prodigy; superstars; wonderkids or wunderkinds. It is really only “giftedness” that has any serious academic investigation.

Dries (2013) noted that for different people the concept is quite distinct: for HR Talent is capital; for work psychologists it is about individual differences; for educational psychologists it is seen as giftedness and as a strength for the positive psychologists.

Talent implies the possibility of people becoming more than they are. Silzer and Church (2009) argued that the concept of potential (talent) is all about something existing in possibility only. Is it singular, immutable and context independent or defined by and brought out only in certain situations? They note that high potential can be defined by role, level, breadth, record, strategic position or strategic area. They analysed eleven companies’ definitions of talent/high potential and found evidence of six categories variously defined:

Cognitive: cognitive ability/complexity, intelligence, navigates ambiguity, breadth of perspective, judgement, insightful, strategic reasoning; tactical     problem solving.

Personality: dominance, sociability, stability, interpersonal, emotionally intelligent, authentic, optimistic, personal maturity, respect for people, self-aware, integrity.

Learning: adaptability, versatility, learning agility, receptive to feedback, eager to learn, flexible, seeks feedback, learns from mistakes.

Leadership: competent, inspiring, develops others, brings out the best in people, influencing, challenges the status quo.

Motivation: drive, aspiration, engagement, initiative, energy, risk-taking, power/control, tenacity, passion for results, courage to take risks, commitment to company/impact.

Performance: leadership experiences.

Other things: technical skills, culture fit, promotability, business knowledge/acumen.

A debate remains as to what talent actually is; whether it needs special nurturing to last and what it predicts. If talent is not merely a new name for an old construct or set of constructs, what does it comprise?
They rather cleverly divide these into three categories: foundational dimensions (cognitive and personality), growth dimensions (learning and motivation) and career dimensions (leadership, performance and knowledge values). But, they argue, many questions remain to be answered regarding building a comprehensive model of potential that works in all organisations, deciding on clear criteria so that we can be sure a person reaches their potential and the problems of self-fulfilling prophesies in this area.

From an individual work psychology perspective MacRae and Furnham (2013) suggest there are six characteristics of people with potential:

  1. 1. Conscientiousness: Capacity for self-motivation, organisation and planning. Those with high conscientiousness appear dependable and diligent. Those with lower conscientiousness tend to be more spontaneous, laid-back and may need to be motivated by others.
  2. 2. Adjustment: Emotional resilience to stressors, difficulties and challenges. Those with high adjustment are calm under pressure and appear unflappable. Those with lower adjustment appear to feel stress more keenly.
  3. 3. Curiosity: Openness to new ideas, techniques, and ways of doing things. Those with high openness like novelty, learning and variety. Those with lower openness prefer tried and tested methods and uniformity.
  4. 4. Risk Approach: Capacity to make reasoned decisions in the face of adversity. Those with a high-risk approach confront difficult situations and have difficult conversations in a reasoned and rational way; those with lower risk approach make more instinctive decisions.
  5. 5. Ambiguity Acceptance: Receptiveness to complexity, inconsistency and incongruences. Those with high ambiguity acceptance thrive with uncertainty and complexity. Those with lower ambiguity acceptance like a clear-cut answer, simple solution.
  6. 6. Competitiveness: Desire for professional success, recognition and achievement. Those with high competitiveness enjoy positions of power, influence and recognition. Those with lower competitiveness prefer cooperation, collaboration and may dislike the spotlight.

They have developed and validated a test of the above that has been used successfully in various settings.

Yet a debate remains as to what talent actually is; whether it needs special nurturing to last and what it predicts. If talent is not merely a new name for an old construct or set of constructs, what does it comprise? And how does one develop a person into a talented manager?



C. Issues to Ponder

There are various specific questions for those trying to assess and evaluate talent. Here are some issues and questions to ponder:

  • • Write down all the synonyms and antonyms for talent that you can think of.
  • • Have you ever worked with, or for, a really talented person? How did you know? Describe your observations.
  • • What are the lessons of turnover of talented people? Why do talented people leave? Is that good or bad for them and/or your organisation?
  • • What particular processes would you put in place to recruit and select high flyers to your organisation?
  • • Should the list of those who are judged to be talented (or talentless) be kept secret? Indeed could it ever become secret?
  • • Under what circumstances should people labelled or nominated as talented be taken off the list and others brought into the talent group? That is, what should be the nature of mobility for talented (and less talented) people?
  • • Should you invest more or less time and money into the talent group than those not in the group? If the talented are in some way gifted should we not invest more in those who, for whatever reason, are seen to have less talent?
  • • Imagine you have a budget of £5000/$6000 and three weeks in total (21 days a year) to develop your high flyers, what would you do?
  • • Do you think it is a sign of being a real talented person that you could trust them to plan their own training and use your budget to realise their full potential?
  • • What, in your view, are the three easiest and the three hardest things involved with talent management?
  • • Which issue are you most/least interested in or vexed by?


D. The Fundamental Questions

From a management perspective there seems to be a number of important questions:

  • • Attracting talent: This involves the recruitment of talented people, identifying the best methods to assess it and finding ways to persuade talented people to join the organisation. This is essentially a recruiting and selection task. This may mean trying to attract people from universities as well as various firms. The idea is aimed at making these especially (and perhaps unusually) talented people favourably disposed to your organisations such that they apply for advertised positions. You have to ask (and answer the question) why would any talented person want to come and work for you?
  • • Developing Talent: One of the concepts associated with talent is the idea of potential to rise up the organisation to ever more important and challenging jobs. For this it is thought (even) talented people require particular training, coaching or mentoring. This can, and should, be done on an individual basis as well as on a corporate level through leadership development, succession planning to new job integration and assimilation initiative.
  • • Retaining Talent: This involves keeping talented people after they have been selected. It involves understanding their particular and specific ‘package’ and training needs. They might be differently motivated than less talented groups, and the task is to find out how to keep them both happy and productive. This question addresses whether they need anything different compared to good management practices and equitable rewards to ensure they stay working for the organisation. The issue is one of return on investment: on knowing how to turn a talented employee, into a talented manager, into a talented director and then, even a talented CEO.
  • • Transferring Talent: Inevitably, talented people move – they move up the organisation (almost by definition); they move to sister companies; they may head up overseas divisions of the company. Furthermore, they leave the organisation. It is important to ensure that all issues associated with out-placement, relocation and retirement are done well.

Perhaps the attraction and transitioning of talent are the easier issues of these tasks. If you have a great brand and reputation it is particularly easy; less so if your organisation is less well known with a poor reputation. However it may be worth concentrating on just two of these issues.


E. The Development of Talent

There are many ways to develop talent. Talented leaders provide much the same narrative of the factors that influenced them most. Studies across organisations in different sectors as well as those within big corporations and across different corporate and national cultures, even different historical time zones, reveal the same story. Talented leaders mention six powerful learning experiences:

  • • The first is early work experience. This may be a ‘part-time’ job at school; a relatively unskilled summer holiday job at university; or one of the first jobs they ever had. For some it was the unadulterated tedium or monotony that powerfully motivated them to never want to repeat. For others it was a particular work style or process that they have retained all their lives. This is something to select for.
  • • The second factor is the experience of other people, and it is nearly always an immediate boss, but can be a colleague or one of the serious grown-ups. They are almost always remembered as either very bad or very good: both teach lessons. The moral of this from a development perspective is to find a series of excellent role-model, mentor type bosses for the talent group.
  • • The third factor is short-term assignments: project work, standing in for another or interim management. Because this takes people out of their comfort zone and exposes them to issues and problems they have never before confronted, they learn quickly. For some it is the lucky break: serendipity provides an opportunity to find a new skill or passion.
  • • The fourth is the first major line assignment. This is often the first promotion, foreign posting or departmental move to a higher position. It is often frequently cited because suddenly the stakes were higher, everything more complex and novel and ambiguous. There were more pressures: the buck stopped here. You were accountable. Suddenly the difficulties of management became real. The idea then, is to think through appropriate “stretch assignments” for talented people as soon as they arrive.
  • • The fifth factor is hardships of various kinds. It is about attempting to cope in a crisis that may be professional or personal. It teaches the real value of things: technology, loyal staff and supportive head offices. The experiences are those of battle-hardened soldiers or the “been there, done that” brigade.
  • • Hardship teaches many lessons: how resourceful and robust some people can be and how others panic and cave in. It teaches some to admire a fit and happy organisation when they see it. It teaches them to distinguish needs and wants. It teaches a little about minor forms of post-traumatic stress disorder. And the virtues of stoicism, hardiness and a tough mental attitude.
  • • Sixth on the list comes the management development stuff. Some remember and quote their MBA experience; far fewer some specific (albeit fiendishly expensive) course. One or two quote the experience of receiving 360-degree feedback. More recall a coach, either because they were so good or so awful. This is bad news for trainers, business school teachers and coaches.

To the extent that leadership is acquired, developed and learnt, rather than gifted’, it is achieved mainly through work experiences. Inevitably some experiences are better than others because they teach different lessons in different ways. Some people seem to acquire these valuable experiences despite, rather than as a result of, company policy.

Experiential learning takes time, but timing is important. It’s not a steady, planned accumulation of insights and skills. Some experiences teach little or indeed bad habits.

To the extent that leadership is acquired, developed and learnt, rather than ‘gifted’, it is achieved mainly through work experiences.
But three factors conspire to defeat the experiential model. First, both young managers and their bosses want to short circuit experience: learn faster, cheaper, better. Hence the appeal of the one-minute manager, the one-day MBA and the short course. Second, many HR professionals see this approach as disempowering them because they are ‘in charge’ of the leadership development programme. Third, some see experience as a test, not a developmental exercise.

Maybe leadership potential and talent should be defined as the ability to learn from experience. Equally, every move, promotion or challenge should be assessed also from its learning potential.


F. The Retention of Talent

Martin and Schmidt (2010) argue that as many as a quarter of high potential people in big American companies intend to “jump ship” within a year and a fifth believe their personal aspirations are different from what the company has planned for them. They think that companies make six common mistakes in trying to manage the “talented”:

  • • Assuming they are all engaged when they are not if not challenged, rewarded and recognised enough.
  • • Mistaking current performance for high performance: not all can or want to step up to tougher roles.
  • • Delegating talent development to line managers who may not be qualified to do it.
  • • Shielding talent from more difficult assignments where they will learn more.
  • • Not offering them differentiated compensation and recognition from the others
  • • Keeping them in the dark with respect to what is planned for them.

Bad management, Martin and Schmidt argue, lead to three problem types: Engaged Dreamers (people who aspire but don’t quite have the required ability); Disengaged Stars (people not really committed to the organisation) and Misaligned Stars (whom aren’t prepared to make the real sacrifices required).


G. So?

We have all made selection mistakes. We have all seen people with a fine future behind them: those who appeared to have talent but somehow never realised it. There is no doubt that getting the right people to work for it is pretty important in being successful. There is not a lot really new in the talent literature, except perhaps a better understanding of what talent is and how, when and where one might be able to develop it.

About the Author

Adrian Furnham is Professor at University College London, the Norwegian Business School and the University of KwaZulu Natal. He has written 80 books and 1200 peer-reviewed papers.



1. Dries, N. (2013). The psychology of talent management: A review and research agenda. Human Resource Management Review, 23 (272 – 285)

2. Silzer R., & Church, A. (2009). The pearls and perils of identifying potential. Industrial and Organisational Psychology, 2 (377-412)

3. MacRae, I., & Furnham, A. (2013). High Potential. London: Bloomsbury.

4. Martin, J., & Schmidt, C. (2010). How to keep your top talent. Harvard Business Review, May (54-61)

5. Furnham, A. (2012). The Talented Manager. London: Palgrave.



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