That’s Not Talent.

I got into recruiting by accident, replying to a job posting for a talent scout while looking for a steadier job than my part time gig working the talent desk at Comedy Central, which entailed mostly phones and photocopies.  I sometimes got to go get Starbucks for the Reno 911! producers or find a sassy black supporting type for a two liner out of a room full of headshot files (my first sourcing gig).

But as the story  executives’ ignorance of my very existence and catering to the demands of the “creatives” made clear, the one thing I was not was Talent.  Nope, I was just the dude who stocked up the office supplies and looked up stuff on IMDB. I’ll admit that accidental misunderstanding that got me into this business in the first place could have ended up with a way worse outcome (like having to be on the writing staff of a reality show).  But the fact is, that even though I’m doing alright for myself in the world of work, I still think of talent as something that’s covered in Variety, not BLS data.

I can’t think of a single company – and am pretty darn sure not a single vendor – call the clock watchers, manual laborers or 1099 insurance salesmen as anything other than “talent.”  It’s like the restaurant industry refers to a customer as a ‘guest’ – it’s good marketing, sure, but come on, we’re really just interchangeable SKUs on the road to riches and endemic obesity.  And what we’re referring to as “talent” mostly isn’t talented at all.  They’re just people who need a paycheck.  Then again, that makes most of us.

But we can all agree that talent is, in fact, a relative term – for example, the fact you can bang out Chopsticks on a Yamaha keyboard might be a talent (or sorts), but talent is hearing Glenn Gould polish off a Beethoven sonata on a Steinway.  The greeter at Wal-Mart are probably not “talent” unless you lack opposable thumbs for shaking hands or the ability to sit down for extended periods.  Now, I’m not knocking that noble greeting profession,  since the new OFCCP rules force employers to hire the disabled, probably not a bad HR strategy.  But you know that until they become “team members,” they’re considered to be talent.  It says so on their website.

Most jobs don’t require talent at all, frankly.  Recruiting is actually an exception, but only because human nature tends to be capricious, as do compensation professionals, hiring managers and candidates’ spouses.  But processing invoices in A/R, taking toll booth tickets and bussing tables doesn’t require talent, just tolerance.  A whole lot of tolerance, in fact, because unlike talent, stupidity is endemic in every workplace in America.

I’m not saying these jobs don’t have a heavy burden physically or mentally, but the ability to cope with stress and forced civility are pretty much what work is all about, really (outside actual work at work, which is incredibly rarer than talent).  Nor am I saying they don’t require skills, but even in professional roles requiring extremely specific experience, expertise and training require a tremendous amount of skills, which, unlike talent, can be learned.

Skills are bred; talent is born.  That’s why we say we’re looking for talent, but in fact are really just looking for skills – and that the person who has those skills also can speak in complete sentences and doesn’t have a dark, criminal past before making them an offer.  Other than that, the real talent in talent acquisition is actually getting that offer approved and accepted.

So let’s stop talking about “the war for talent.”  Instead, we should be talking about what skills we need and how best to utilize those skills our current and future workers have today and how to acquire the ones they – and your business – will need to succeed tomorrow, too.

*The only caveat I’ll give to the premise of this post is that the word talent is so amorphous and flexible – kind of like the business version of the “F word” – that it’s really convenient and easy to use in content marketing.  So don’t hate me when I go back to using it in the next post on recruiting or HR I happen to write.  Hey, it’s not talent, but it’s a living.

3 Comments on “That’s Not Talent.”

  1. “I still think of talent as something that’s covered in Variety, not BLS data” says it all.
    Believing that talent is born and not made from skills, knowledge and experience (ske) supports a recruiting process that weights an amorphous ‘fit’ out of proportion to the what might be systematically measured…without a recruiter’s or even a hiring manager’s intuitive input.

    What would it look like if a software program challenged a candidate to demonstrate the essential SKEs required and offered the first candidate who could do so the job?

  2. Gerry – I say hire for fit and train for skills, because you can teach a monkey to do something like sourcing or content marketing (or programming, albeit with a little more work) but you you can’t make the world’s best SME any less of a douchebag. Skills in aggregate aren’t talent, but talent can create a propensity for certain skills.

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