You are right, talent is an overused and under-defined term. If our recent debate is any indication, even those who work in the business of talent don’t operate under a common definition.
Talent, by definition, is an innate capability or potential capability of an individual in some area. Talent in this definition is not learned, we are born with it–it develops organically within us. If you were to say that I have a talent for public speaking, I would assume you to mean that I have a natural capacity, greater than most people perhaps, for the act or art of public speaking. It might be that I have a natural confidence when I’m in front of people. It might mean that I have some charisma that differentiates me from others. People in the arts use the word talent a lot because it’s more obvious in the arts that some people are born with creative ability and others are not. There are a lot of people who sing, but even an untrained ear can tell the difference between a talented child singer and the rest.
But, the word talent has been contorted recently. While I believe that those at the forefront of the Talent Management movement would argue that their vision was to take people and place them in jobs and roles that fit with their innate talents, I think that much of the HR and business community have taken the word talent to now mean “skill” or “behavior.” We talk about finding someone talented to hire into our companies when what we mean is that we want someone who is skilled in the right areas and knows how to behave in alignment with our cultural norms. In recruting, talent has morphed into even meaning job “fit” at times. The right “talent” for a role is the person who a hiring manager will hire. At best, what we are really talking about most of the time in corporate settings when we talk about talent is competence.
These uses of the word talent really dilute the power of what talent truly is. HR practicioners and Talent Managers need to return to the root definition of talent. They need to commit to the idea of talent as our innate, natural abilities and capabilities. If we focused on this definition of talent, we’d spend our time truly setting talent free by placing it in situations where it could flourish and grow. We must also be talking about and working on skills and competence, but talent is the magic part of the equation.