Talent is a Fad  
1/15/2009 5:34:35 PM

By Peter Weddle -- The editors of Harvard Business Review recently defined a fad as a term that has become so broadly used as to be almost meaningless. While we think of fads as a social phenomenon, we’ve all heard (and maybe used) such terms in the workplace. These bon mots of the business world include “value proposition,” “employer of choice” and “doing more with less.” For recruiters, however, I think the most prevalent fad in our profession is the also the least recognized. It’s the term “talent” as in that mighty phrase “The War for Talent.”

What makes talent a fad? Consider the following definitions that are attached to the term by various recruiters, hiring managers, pundits and HR executives:

  • Talent is someone who can do a job.
  • Talent is someone who is an “A” level performer on-the-job.
  • Talent is someone whose qualifications satisfy or exceed the requirements specified for a job.
  • Talent is someone whose performance meets or exceeds the responsibilities specified for a job.
  • Talent is whatever the hiring manager says it is.
  • There are almost certainly a dozen or more other possible definitions of the term, all of which make the point: talent has become a term that is so broadly used (and interpreted) as to be almost meaningless. In short, talent is a fad.

    Should We Care?

    Does the fact that talent is a fad mean we should abandon the term? Does its decline into that sad state mean that we should no longer be in the business of talent acquisition? Of course not. Recognizing talent as a fad doesn’t alter our mission as recruiters. It doesn’t change the substance of what we do, but it should give us pause. Why is that? Because fads are not always benign.

    Fads, in fact, can be very disruptive. Business fads, in particular, are used so frequently and in so many different contexts by so many different people with so many different agendas that they lose the ability to convey any definitive information. They become ambiguous. And that lack of clarity and precision, in turn, leads to miscommunication and misunderstanding in the workplace.

    In our case, when there is no clear and universally accepted definition of talent within an organization, we recruiters are set up to be chumps. We think we are sourcing the kind of individuals our employers or clients will value, but we may be wrong or, worse, we may be right, but have the rules changed on us after the fact so we are made to look wrong. You’ll know what I’m talking about if you’ve ever identified the perfect candidate for some hiring manager’s vacancy based on what’s stated in the requisition, only to have the hiring manager then tell you that the candidate is totally off the mark. That’s the perniciousness of a fad at work.

    So, What Should You Do?

    I recommend that you start out 2009 with a definitional exercise. Pull together a meeting of the recruiting team and at least the key thought leaders among the line managers in your organization and hammer out what talent means in your culture. Transform the term from a fad to a standard.

    Achieving that objective will, in all likelihood, take more than a little patience, diplomacy and determination, but it is possible. At the outset, there will probably be a wide array of different views and even some grandstanding among those in the meeting. It’s important, however, to let that happen as everyone needs to feel as though they’ve had their say.

    Then, point out the dysfunctional aspects of competing definitions. When what talent means is ambiguous in an organization, it takes longer and costs more to fill its openings. Worse, it increases the likelihood of a person-job mismatch and thus threatens the ability of line managers to accomplish their goals.

    Finally, move the group toward consensus. Push them to develop a document that establishes a standard for talent in your organization. That document should:

  • provide a business rationale for the standard. For example, the purpose of setting a common definition for talent is to reduce inefficiencies and therefore costs in recruiting and to improve the quality of new hires and thus their performance on-the-job.
  • present a precise definition of talent that is culturally appropriate. For example, talent in this organization is defined to be those individuals who meet no less than 90% of the candidate requirements specified for an opening in a formal requisition approved by a hiring manager.
  • be widely distributed and consistently enforced. For example, the document can be included in manager’s handbooks and training curricula and its contents serve as the basis for measuring their satisfaction with recruiting outcomes.
  • We all think we know what talent is and, for that reason, it’s sometimes hard to believe that others may have a different view of the term. Because talent is a fad, however, such differences of opinion are not only possible; they’re probable. The resulting ambiguity undermines our ability to do our jobs well and to be recognized when we have. So, use the start of a new year to protect yourself and set yourself up for success: transform talent from a meaningless fad to a powerful standard in your organization.

    Thanks for reading,