Just What Really Is “Top Talent,” Anyway?

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May 8, 2014

The business community (and that definitely includes HR folks) talks a lot about “top talent.”

We gab about how to attract top talent, develop top talent, engage top talent, and retain top talent.

We even talk about how much top talent an organization really needs (versus the regular kind).

But what is “top talent”?

To some degree, the answer to that question is subjective, depending on a particular organization’s needs, leadership, and culture.

To a larger degree, however, the answer isn’t subjective at all. When top talent is in action, most of us have no trouble recognizing it.

Top talent defined

The most talented people I’ve encountered during my career demonstrated the following characteristics:

  • Seriousness — The most talented employees are serious about work, and they’re serious about meeting their goals. Don’t mess with top talents’ ambitions, because you might get hurt. In general, these folks do not suffer fools gladly.
  • Commitment — Top talent has good old-fashioned “stick-to-it-ness.” Top talent follows through.
  • Competence — Your most talented employees are usually the most knowledgeable and skilled in their area of expertise as well. What’s more, these individuals are willing to learn the unknown if that’s what the job requires
  • Creativity — Top talent has the ability to view a situation from multiple angles, making them effective problem solvers. Top talent also has varied interests, rendering them good at many things.
  • Willfulness — Top talent doesn’t always do as they’re told, which can create conflict. However, only the most short-sighted, insecure, or controlling boss won’t recognize that this free thinking comes with the territory. There is no such thing as a top-tier employee who doesn’t have a mind of his (or her) own.
  • Curiosity — Top talent has questions — lots of them.
  • Competitiveness — Top talent likes to do things well, but that desire doesn’t necessarily translate into being competitive in the usual sense. Mostly, these folks like competing against themselves.
  • Admirable analytical skills — Your most talented workers have superior reasoning ability, which again can create some conflict, because when presented with an idea (especially a half-baked one), top talent will immediately begin shooting holes in it. For them, it’s intellectual stimulation; others may perceive the exercise less favorably. Which brings me to…
  • Emotionally maturity — Your most talented employees have gifts tempered by maturity. Talent absent maturity can be hugely problematic. The truth is, a wildly talented person without emotional maturity can be a real jerk, and who wants to work with a jerk?

A lesson from a great boss

When I think of top talent, I’m reminded of the best boss I ever had. (Let’s call her Andrea.)

Andrea was as sharp as the proverbial tack, but she also possessed warmth, compassion, and loads of integrity. She was supportive, a great listener, and courageous.

Sometimes Andrea ruffled the feathers of less talented slackers her peers, but despite the occasional drama, Andrea knew how to get things done.

Andrea had talent that even her detractors had to acknowledge. After being fired without notice, ostensibly for “incompetence,” (really, she got on someone’s last nerve) Andrea was later (like days later) rehired as a consultant, because no one else could actually do the job.

Do you know talent when you see it?

Now here’s a question for hiring managers and recruiters:

Are you talented enough at what you do to recognize top talent when you see it, whether during a job interview or in the workplace?

And, are you willing to be challenged by talent? Because if you aren’t, you’ll never keep it.

A few days ago I read an article claiming that conscientiousness is THE personality trait that most often predicts success, including career success.

The claim was a bit of a disappointment (and I consider myself conscientious, too), because the “successful” individual was portrayed as pretty darn compliant, and the idea that compliance leads to “success” depressed me.

However, perhaps that explains why more employers don’t have the “top talent” they say they want.

What do you think?