Talent and academic achievement are not one and the same

Occupational psychologist Memory Nguwi emphasises the importance of recognising and rewarding talent, regardless of its status within the organisation.

Let us start by defining talent to put context to this discussion. I know most HR people want to look at talent as every employee in their organisation. That approach to talent management does not give the maximum impact to your business. Talent represents those people who have exceptional ability, potential and performance. They make a huge difference to your business now. They have the potential to significantly change the game for your business in a positive way. They represent a small group, roughly 20 percent, but they give your business 80 percent value. Talented people are able to achieve the same or better than the average performer even by exerting less effort. Theirs is effortless performance - the way Messi does it for Barcelona.

Talent is what Cristiano Ronaldo is to Portugal. Others that represent exceptional talent include Serena Williams, Roger Federer and Usain Bolt. In politics, you are looking at Barack Obama and Paul Kagame. That is what is called talent. These people depend on their exceptional ability to win - and not luck. In the business world, while most companies evaluate talent by focusing on qualification, the true identification comes from spotting people with exceptional cognitive ability plus the right personality and values. Focusing your talent efforts on those with a list of academic achievement will not take you anywhere. While there is a relationship between academic achievement and cognitive ability, you get better results by using cognitive ability as the criteria, as it is supported by research on its predictive power.

"In most organisations, this job of identifying, nurturing and retaining exceptional talent is poorly done."

In the business world, you need to get such people into key roles regardless of level. Because people are rarely elevated to higher levels based on merit, in some organisations you may end up with junior staff being more capable than the leadership, but they will never be given the opportunity to go up. It happens in business and it happens in politics. This results in poor performance.

Where to find talent

The choice of where to get talent is crucial in talent management. If you decide to look internally, which most organisations do, ensure you put more resources into that group with exceptional ability and potential. Do not ignore your average employees. Give them the support so that their performance does not go below where they are. Unfortunately, in practice, we want to train every employee and hope to get maximum benefits. Training every employee spreads your resources thin, thereby depriving you of the benefit that top talent brings. I also see that sometimes organisations waste resources sending people for training when such individuals have no capacity to transfer what they have learnt to the workplace due to limited cognitive ability. 

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"Another pitfall to talent identification is that if you factor in current performance in the talent identification you run the risk if misclassifying people. This is largely because in most roles, individual effort is poorly related to performance outcomes."

In most roles, luck plays a big role in the performance of some of the people. Some people perform because they are working at a good location, while others perform because they are looking after a superior brand than others in similar roles. When performance assessment is being done properly you can use statistical methods to separate performance due to individual effort and that which is due to other factors that have nothing to do with individual efforts.

Besides getting talent from your internal people, you can also source talent from outside. The best strategy is not to rush to take the best people in the market into your business. The best strategy is to have a list of such individuals and monitor their progress from where they are without bringing them into your business. There are two reasons for this. The first reason is to let others develop that talent and when it is mature to fit into a role that you want, recruit them. This reduces your talent management costs, as you will get the best talent when it is already developed. The second reason is that it brings fewer disruptions as it gives you an opportunity to do a proper assessment of that individual without the pressure to bring them into the organisation immediately.

Think about portability

The big challenge with sourcing talent from outside is how portable their talent and performance is from where they are working into your organisation. Lionel Messi struggles in the Argentine national team but gives exceptional value at Barcelona. Similar instances in the world of soccer are available where people at the peak of their game are transferred to an equally successful club but do not realise the same success. The reason is that culture differs from organisation to organisation. Moving from a supportive culture to a dysfunctional culture can make people fail. Every talent you hire from outside must be assessed for culture fit before you waste money. Others cultures promote collaborative working while others are individualistic. The non-availability of resources can be an obstacle regardless of talent. Regardless of how gifted someone is, they may fail if they are not supported with resources. Policies and systems also prevent people from reaching their potential.

To be able to manage talent with massive impact on your business, be rigorous and scientific when identifying who is 'talent' and who is not. A seamless development programme must be put together and this must include both classroom type of development, secondment to superior players outside the country and coaching. Locally, I have not seen a serious talent management programme. We are far from maximising value on this important aspect of the business.

Memory Nguwi is an occupational psychologist, data scientist, speaker, and managing consultant at management and human resources consulting firm Industrial Psychology Consultants.