Talent is the Problem

Talent is the Problem

Posted on 03. Apr, 2009 by in Blog

By /content/view/11/26/”>cialis cipla John Sumser

(April 03, 2009) I spent the first part of this week at the San Diego ERE Expo. It was an amazing get together with lots of interesting people. Everyone from the north and the east was celebrating the climate. It’s not such a big thing for those of us who already live in paradise.

As I watched and listened, I started to realize that we’re witnessing a sea change. Our little universe is transforming along with the rest of the economy. /content/view/11/26/”>cialis cipla The blood is running in the streets so deeply that it sometimes obscures our view. Change is upon us.

Everywhere I went, people were talking about talent. No one had a definition of talent, they just talked about it. That’s how it is in HR and Recruiting, people have long theoretical conversations without ever defining terms. Talent this, talent that, talent the other thing. No shared definition, lots and lots of generalizations.

It became clear to me that talent is code. It means “the best and the brightest” until you ask someone. I spent all day Monday asking people what talent was. The best I could get is the “it’s something everyone has.” “Bulls**t,” I thought to myself.

It doesn’t pass the Emma Sumser (she’s my mom) test. If I tell her that everyone is talented, she’s liable to say something like “That’s why they’re all on the Knicks” or “Hmmm, you handle that shovel like a ballerina” or “I guess I was dealing with the only untalented person in customer service yesterday.”

Talent does not mean “everyone”, it means “the best and the brightest.” The War for Talent is not a war for everyone, it is a war for a specific class of people. The term, talent, demeans most people. They don’t want to be lumped in with the class of people who enjoy being called “the best and the brightest”.

Talent Management System is a misnomer. Those things manage people. Most people are not particularly talented.

The “Talented” ones have been allowed to operate unsupervised. The adults are coming. We’ve been celebrating innovation and creativity at the expense of good old fashioned hard work. Hard work is making a comeback; it’s the new black. Just Work.

Here’s the problem. You just don’t want everyone in your organization to be talented. It’s very likely the case that we are suffering from the fact that there were too many talented executives at AIG. The term “Talent” and all of the philosophy about managing this “scarce” commodity, is at the root of the misbehavior of the first part of this Century. People who are hired and coddled because they are “talent” do the stupid sorts of things that we’ve just witnessed.

The degree to which you need “talented” people is a function of your organization. R&D Centers need lots of innovation. McDonald’s franchises need relatively little. In fact, most companies need very little talent. What they do need is persistent, hard-working, determined, honest people who bring all of their resources to bear on the job at hand.

I expect to see the term talent used less and less frequently. When you make it a question of “talent”, you insult people who create value for a living; you demean the vast majority of people with jobs. Calling people “talent” is short sighted and demonstrates a failure to understand the problem. They are not “talent”, they are “people”.

29 Responses to “Talent is the Problem”

  1. michael

    03. Apr, 2009

    the term talent came flying into our industry as quickly as it should leave it. the notion that a company should be stocked with all “a” list players is incorrect. the “a” list players should be strategically recruited and placed into positions that are going to give you a competitive advatange. for some companies that are consistently on the cutting edge, they will have a higher percentage than others. otherwise you get too many chefs in the kitchen.

  2. Patrick Frost

    03. Apr, 2009


    I think from an organizational perspective, talent can be defined as “the ability to do really well what you ask the person to do.” My friend who runs a manufacturing facility is going to assess talent differently than I will while recruiting for the software company that employs me. Isn’t that what we are all trying to do in recruiting? Find someone who is really good at doing what we or our client is going to ask them to do?

  3. Lizz pellet

    03. Apr, 2009


    great post – “talent” is like “culture” – everyone has it but is hard pressed to define it.

    Definitions often provide clarity, but some people also feel it indicates rigidity if we all have to agree.

  4. John Sumser

    03. Apr, 2009

    I’m not sure that talent really means “the ability to do really well what you ask the person to do”. That would mean that if you can’t, you don’t have talent. That’s pretty demeaning.

    You don’t need a talent in bricklaying in order to learn how to do it. But, if you are not trained, you probably can’t do it very well. It’s more likely that there’s a training problem than a talent problem when people can’t do what you ask them to do..

    Performance management is all about making sure that people can accomplish the tasks that they are assigned. Patrick’s example is exactly what happens when the definitions are not crystal clear.

  5. John Sumser

    03. Apr, 2009

    Can you imagine someone in engineering or operations saying that it’s unimportant that we agree on what we measure and manage. Only in HR is it okay to say that ‘rigidity’ is a reason to avoid being very clear.

    Without a definition of Talent, you can’t manage it.

  6. Sean Rehder

    03. Apr, 2009

    I think recruiters may be confusing the noun “talent” with the adjective “talented.”

    The adjective “talented” is way too subjective and we can throw that out the window as a general description of a person.

    However, regarding the noun “talent,” I adamantly DISAGREE that this should be disregarded.

    My definition of talent….

    What it is…

    Talent is a person, you are talent if you possess a skill set that my company needs immediately or in the foreseeable future. It’s that simple.

    What it is not…

    Talent is not a measure of a person’s capability in regards to anything.

    What do I do with talent?

    I pipeline it as soon as I determine it. Pipelining is simply categorizing people based upon their defined skill set and how and where it matches my company’s needs.

    I brand to talent.

    I connect on LinkedIn to talent.

    I invite talent to events.

    I send industry news to talent.

    I refer talent to other talent.

    I follow talent on twitter.

    I give to talent.

  7. John Sumser

    03. Apr, 2009


    If ‘talent’ is just another word for ‘skill’, why not say ‘skill’. My view is that the word means much more and is designed to indicate the best and the brightest.

    If I don’t have a skill, I’m not talent?

  8. Sean Rehder

    03. Apr, 2009


    Well, I’m not saying “talent is just another word for skill.”

    We all have skills…numchuk skills, bowhunting skills, computer hacking skills. ~ N. Dynamite.

    I disagree about the “best and the brightest” because its just too subjective. You can be the best and the brightest “over there,” but not necessarily “over here.” Research will tell you about how internal culture/process plays a huge role in one’s success.

    Your example of the “best and the brightest” and what they did with Wall Street was predicted years ago by Enron. They too had the best and brightest and left unsupervised.

    “If I don’t have a skill, I’m not talent?”

    If you don’t have a skill that I need, no, you are not talent. Save the pity party, go get trained (or learn yourself), and bring something to the table.

    “Hard work making a comeback” without innovation and creativity?

    I’m not so sure on that one.

    Like the Boss said, “Those jobs are going boys, and they ain’t coming back.” ~ B. Springsteen, My Hometown.

    In these times, innovation and creativity will be what separates you from all the other people with strong backs, worn out work boots, and will work hard for their employer…and there are millions in this country.

    Every person, every day can “choose” to work hard. Its not so easy to say “today I will come up with a way to make my company more money” and actually deliver on that.

    Not sure how I got on that rant, but none the less.

    Nice seeing you again at San Diego.

  9. John Sumser

    03. Apr, 2009


    It was good seeing you in San Diego as well.

    People who can innovate are really important. You need more of them in companies that constantly evolve products. You need fewer in customer service, at checkout stands or waiting tables.

    In the view you are espousing, the fundamental building blocks of our economy, people who work hard, are not interesting. You suggest that what they need to do is differentiate themselves.

    That’s exactly the problem with the whole talent concept.

    It’s really a mistake to think that innovation makes the world go round. If you’re a short order cook, getting the plates out in a rush makes the world go round.

    This business of ‘differentiation’ is strange. Why would you think that I’d feel sorry for myself if you don’t need me?

    You want to use the word ‘talent’ in an extremely self-referential way. “You only have talent if I need you.” Hmmm.

    I agree that it’s not easy to do the things you describe. I just don’t think that it’s useful to expect everyone in a workforce to do them. To suggest that those who don’t lack talent or aren’t talent is very bad communication.

    The word “talent” is used to turn people into commodities. Some people have it, some people don’t. So called Talent Management Systems manage both groups while demeaning the later.

  10. Jerry Albright

    03. Apr, 2009

    Simply put – the word “talent” has been put in place of “people” in our ever pressing need for political correctness.

    The same nauseauting need for “different words” has also given us “career seeker” in place of the word “applicant”.

    I for one am sick of it!

  11. karenm

    03. Apr, 2009

    The UGESP defines for us what Talent is and should be..

    Talent are individuals who fit the Minimum Objective QUALIFICATIONS for the positions we have to fill…

    They define it well for us with the following

    – qualifications must be noncomparative, objective, and MOST IMPORTANTLY Job related.. –

    anything outside of that, well, it is just Subjective B.S

  12. Sean Rehder

    03. Apr, 2009

    So…I’m in line with the UGESP, right?

    Please correct me if I’m wrong.

  13. John Sumser

    03. Apr, 2009

    You’re kidding, right?

    Recruiting is all about communication, isn’t it? Getting the right message to the right people, defining the job requirements clearly, making sure that the resume aligns with the reality, managing the expectations of all of the stakeholders…communications.

    Except in the area of Talent. When we use that word, we’re referring to a government regulation that most recruiters (let alone candidates, employees, hiring managers and stakeholders) have never heard of.

    If you told your mother that the word ‘talent’ means ‘meets the minimum requirements’, don’t you think she’d laugh. Wouldn’t most of your hiring managers? Does the CFO really think that ‘talent’ is a minimum threshold?

    Please ask yourself what a conventional definition would be. I’m suggesting that the usage is damaging to people and the profession.

    Talent Management is a compliance question? That’s exactly what’s wrong. We don’t mean what we say and then blame the government for it.

  14. Sandra McCartt

    04. Apr, 2009

    And what three eyed talent dripping, A player who met the mimum threshold of noncomparative qualification designed this mish mash with comments in two different locations for the same blog.

  15. Mary Anne Hebert

    04. Apr, 2009

    The words diligence, emotionally intelligent, sensibility and honest work ethic should all be included in the definition of talent.

  16. Steve Levy

    04. Apr, 2009

    The problem here is that the really bad recruiters got caught up in the “Business Partner” crap and decided that being called Manager/Director/VP/Supreme Galactic Commander of Recruiting wasn’t good enough so some enterprising person said, “Hey, let’s call ourselves Talent Acquisition!” With this, maybe we can get a seat at the table too!

    As far as the government defining “talent”, need I say any more? What’s next – David Hasselhoff becoming the government’s appointment to run the DOL because he’s been a judge on the show America’s Got Talent?

    John, thanks for the call you big lunk!

  17. Martin Snyder

    04. Apr, 2009

    mmm two places to comment. Per someone’s request above, to define Talent, from Google’s definition engine :

    endowment: natural abilities or qualities
    a person who possesses unusual innate ability in some field or activity

    a unit of weight and money used in ancient times in Greece, the Roman Empire, and the Middle East; a marked ability or skill; the potential or factual ability to perform a skill better than most people; attractive man or woman; large breasts

    Informal term for actors and extras.

    From the Greek talanton = scales; Greek and Roman weight unit for a certain sum of money. We have shifted the word´s association of material, monetary value to one expressing admirable human characteristics: talents are a person´s inherent abilities, as given by God.

    Sumser declares Jihad against Innovation !! I love it.

    Everybody recruits in Lake Wobegone, where every candidate is above average.

    And what’s REALLY with this seat at the table stuff ? You have juice, or you dont. You dont get it, show it, or use it sitting around any table, unless you think boards of directors do anything but rubberstamp what the power players want….meetings are to tell the proles what they will do….not to decide much of anything…we leave that to the deciders, and who knows where they do their deciding ?

  18. Rayanne Thorn

    04. Apr, 2009

    “Motivation will always beat mere talent.” ~Norman R. Augustine, an extremely talented engineer who knows what makes the difference.

  19. Jeff Hunter

    04. Apr, 2009

    What a wonderful conversation. My definition is here:


    Thanks to John for keeping us honest.

  20. John Sumser

    04. Apr, 2009

    Marty nailed it. Talent = Unusual. Saying that ‘everyone is talent’ is the exact opposite of what talent means. Talent is something that a few unusual people have. The rest of us have to do it the old fashioned way.

    Mary Anne, when you add all of those additional attributes, you change the definition. My sense is that you need ‘diligence, emotional intelligence, sensibility and an honest work ethic’ to harvest your natural gifts. If you have no natural gifts, those things can be the foundation of your success.

    Back to the point. The real trouble is that the use of the word ‘talent’ is a symptom of the kind of thinking that got us into this economic and cultural mess.

  21. John Sumser

    05. Apr, 2009

    Somehow, Jeff slipped in there. Nioce to know that he’s lurking around ;-).

    It’s so nice to have him here that I am really tempted to just agree with his definitions.

    And, I do agree that he does a wonderful job defining the kinds of people who create the most value in our organizations. Jeff’s entire series on Talentism is an amazing dissertation on the way we can and should harness human capital. Jeff, more than any other thinker in the business wrestled all of the meaning out of the question. (oh, my faint heart, why doesn’t he write more often).

    Sadly, people don’t use Jeff’s definitions any more than they use the fabled FSLTP (oops, I mean the UsGOOP or was it the JKLMNOP?). Jeff’s definition is the way ‘talent’ should be.

    ‘Talent’ has a very specific meaning in the culture. When you try to turn it into a technical word, there is confusing carryover. People who are unfamiliar with the technical definition use the term with its conventional definitions. Talent is unusual and special.

    That is what causes all of the management problems.

  22. Steve Levy

    05. Apr, 2009

    Hitting a 98 mph fastball

    Throwing a 98 mph fastball

    Sixth Dan in Aikido

    Typing 100 wpm

    Writing OO Perl code that automates the Oracle provisioning tasks of a DBA

    A young model who earns $20M/year

    Being able to scam people and the government with a $50 Billion Ponzi scheme

    (yes, talent is both good and evil)

    We have a generation of people who have grown up believing they’re all special, all deserving of being number one, all carrying within them the words of people – parents – who told them they are talented.

    The government and all associated pollyhannas want them to belief this too.

    Media gives people their 15 minutes of fame and these people believe they are now talented. The middle class looks at their lot in life, looks at a CEO earning $1 Million/year, and believes that because somewhere inside is a voice that is still telling them they’re talented and deserving, want that same $1 Million and if they can’t get it, will try and pull down that person who is at the top of the pedestal.

    You need more than a pat on the back to be at the top of the game.

    “It takes little talent to see clearly what lies under one’s nose, a good deal of it to know in which direction to point that organ.” ~Wystan Auden

  23. Margaret (Margo)Graziano

    06. Apr, 2009

    My friend and mentor, I use the world talent a lot, as you know. My feeling and stake in the talent game is that it is the person and their behaviors, integrity, hard work ethic, proactive nature, moxie, and much much more that either make or break an organization. It’s about getting the work done, in or out of an economic downturn. It’s also about surrounding yourself with people who will work. For example in sales if a person wont pick up the phone, they GO, no matter what their talent report says. Hats off to you. Margo

  24. Jason Monastra

    06. Apr, 2009

    Are you kidding….I read this and saw all the response and I sitting there going. What? The very thing that you say about talking endlessly and “long theoretical conversations” is what this read is.

    Talent as we all know is not the person – it is the ability for someone to bring a certain skill set to the table and leverage that for the production of some work, service, etc. To call that most people are untalented – that is a far cry from the truth and short-sighted. Frankly I know a lot of non talented people when they are in the office, however have great Fantasy Football teams or are superior at Guitar Hero. Bottom line it is simply not talent that anyone in the work field is interested in.

    What people are looking for is a SKILL SET, one that allows a person to come into a particular job, do it with the most amazing efficiency, handle complex issues, and grasp company nuances in a matter of minutes. That is some that is TALENTED but only as it relates to a specific position. Talent can be defined as everyone, or better yet no one – all depends on what your measuring it against.

    So when it comes to talent as we are so defining it, yes I want everyone in my company to be talented and we do not hire people that are not. The measurement for that talent is depending on the function in which they will be doing, and therefore the scale is adjusted accordingly.

  25. Scott Beardsley

    11. Apr, 2009

    Talent can be thought of as level of capability. A sports team is said to have either “lots of talent” or a “few talented players” on a team of other, average hard working players. You hear in sports than one can make up for a relative lack of talent in a league by shear heart, emotion, passion, determination and hard work. Another player, may not have to practice as much, or perhaps even work as hard to get results due to their level of natural capability – or talent.

  26. […] Talent is the Problem […]

  27. David Perry

    29. May, 2009

    They used to say there were two people in the old west – the Quick and the Dead. The Quick knew that it came down to not only talent and ideas, but execution. The Dead thought only talent mattered — with predictable results.

    Increasing the value of your company is not just about “collecting talented people.” It’s about aligning your people with the company’s overall strategy, getting them to buy-in and to commit to a common vision. More importantly, you need to compel them to work towards the idea not because you told them – but because you gave them impassioned reasons to do it. Only then will employees take responsibility for how their actions affect the business. The days of simple command-and-control structures: I lead you follow – are over.

    Companies today need leaders who are capable of managing a community of people with a common mission willing to routinely operate at levels of peak performance. That’s how organizations compete in a knowledge based economy as centres of excellence – without leaving dead bodies at every gun fight.

    Are you Quick or Dead?

  28. Jennifer

    22. Jul, 2009

    Talent is not a problem; I think finding talent is a problem. Talent resides in people, some have it naturally and some can be taught. Everybody has some “talent” in him; this is the work of employer to see if the person’s skills and abilities match with the job and if organization’s culture compliments his talent. Testing skills is a good way to have an idea of what kind of talent the person has.

  29. Segun Akiode

    16. Dec, 2009

    thank you for getting us thinking on Talent.
    My submission – Talent…??? Whoever created the word for use for recruiters sure thought it through. I suppose. A word mostly in use and there seems not to be any acceptable definition. What a wonder! I feel each recruiter must define the word – talent as a best fit to each peculiar situation as long as it works for you.