Buzzword is my favorite buzzword.

Okay man.

I think we both define talent differently and that is not likely to change in our going back and forth here.  And that’s cool.  Part of the truth here is that talent is an intangible.  It cannot be plugged nicely and neatly into a spreadsheet or a flowchart or a shiny new Twitter app…try as we might.  I would suggest that this is actually true of all of the really, profoundly important aspects of work and life.  Talent is going to be defined differently by different people…and I am less interested in the actual definition than I am in the thought process and consideration behind the definition.

Maybe the larger issue here is this… do we (as HR leaders, practitioners and consultant types) know and understand what really matters?  I have heard arguments that HR should have greater “business acumen.”  Maybe.  I’m personally not all that interested in business acumen.  Seems to me like another example of other people in other professions determining what matters.  There appears to be no shortage of organizations led by people with bunches of business acumen doing bunches of heinous shit.  You can keep your business acumen.

Do we know what really matters?  I think we are maybe losing the battle of “what matters.”  Talent is a good example.  Despite how you or I might define talent, can the HR folks inside the average organization define talent…has there been some actual thought into what it means and how it matters within the context of that organization?  Do the HR folks know how the organization and its employees create value? …do they know the practices, abilities, skills, processes that actually go into creating the value that sustains the organization?  Do they know the basic ingredients?

I have my doubts.  I love my HR people, but I go into a lot of organizations and have conversations with HR folks (and managers) about things like talent, culture, inclusion, innovation, engagement…and the one consistent thing is that when I ask what those things actually mean to them I get a lot of blank stares.  I am not trying to be the word police, but I think that there is a real issue here.  I think it is really hard for us to make well informed decisions and take well informed actions on these issues when there is not a common language and consistent logic in place as a foundation.

I do not care how you define talent, for example, but have you actually put some thought and consideration into what it means to your organizations and why?  Things like talent, diversity, culture, engagement often take shots as being buzzwords.  That’s stupid, these are really really important words, but when we just throw them around without giving any thought to what they mean for us (and why) they do become buzzwords.

If you are going to do “talent management” in your organization, don’t those words have to mean something for your organization and does there not have to be some compelling argument for that in place?  It sounds like this is the case for you  personally, but in the larger profession…is this not a huge blind spot for us?



  1. Hello guys – I’m following along with (and enjoying) the “let’s define talent” conversation and I had a thought. This is directed a little more to Joe than Jason because he’s been a little more of a chicken little regarding his assessment of the HR community and it’s a “put up, or shut up” kinda thing: You talk about HR leaders who don’t get it when it comes to talent. If you were describing an HR leader who understood/got/grokked/lived it, what specific actions would they be doing everyday that proved they understood talent?

    I think that an operational definition would move the conversation forward more than the slippery word focused definition you’ve been volleying back and forth.

    Stay driven gentlemen,

  2. What up Ben.
    a) I do not think that the sky is falling. There are organizations that are getting by every single day without even talking about “talent.” I do think that we often use wrong or inefficient tools around talent, engagement, inclusion, innovation, etc., and that there is great room for improvement.

    b) I do not think that there is an operational definition, because I think that talent is going to mean different things (in some cases VERY different) to different organizations. My whole point (which has probably been poorly made) is not to define talent for everyone, but rather to say that organizations need to be able to define talent. If you are a business leader or an HR person and you cannot tell me what talent means for your organization, why it means that, how you find it and apply it then your talk and metrics and programs towards “talent acquisition” or “talent management” or anything else with “talent” in front of it are all just hocus-pocus. How I define talent, how Jason defines talent, how you define talent are of little meaning beyond their ability to help us sell products and services based on those definitions.

    Organizations that want to be very serious about using talent to their benefit and advantage have to be very clear about what talent is. Without that they cannot even know if their tools and metrics and practices are even pointing in the same direction…they just end up with whatever their favorite vendor or consultant is pushing on a given day.

    What organizations and HR practitioners and biz leaders should be doing everyday regarding talent is going to vary from organization to organization because what talent means is going to vary from organization to organization. I am just trying to make the point that if that foundational language and logic is not in place, they are just playing pin the tail on the donkey.

  3. Thanks for the thoughtful response Joe – I appreciate your take on this.

    As a recruiter, I am charged with executing many functions that generally get lumped under “Talent Acquisition”. Talent Acquisition almost always gets narrowly defined as recruiting people who have specific skills the organization needs. Like you, I’m a bigger thinker than that and often think of other ways to get things done. Things like asking current employees what parts of themselves they aren’t bringing to work that might help get things done. Or looking at who might want to grow their skill set to fill in the gaps.

    I’ll concede the fact that there isn’t an operational definition for talent, but I will continue to bang the drum to expand our thinking about how things get done.

    Peace, my friend

  4. Wow, you are right on with this article. I’m guilty too. I have attached “Talent” to a number of products and services in the hopes that a prospective client would jump on the bandwagon.

    I found that even if I did bring someone in the door using buzzwords, they left unhappy. At first I thought maybe there was something wrong with our product, maybe there was some feature that clients needed. With more experience I realized there was a different issue all together.
    Our clients didn’t know what talent was. They didn’t know what they were trying to accomplish other than to make “better” hires. They didn’t have any idea what a better hire would look like.

    Now we spend time with our clients to help them define what talent looks like in their organization. What does their corporate culture look like? What are the pluses and minuses to their process now? Once we define what their goals are, we can do a way better job of meeting them.

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