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What defines talent?

There are many issues that need to be considered when you try to define 'talent'. For example, is your 'talent' a specific person or is it a group in, or segment of, your workforce? It's essential for you to consider your answers to these questions before you identify and target high-potential future leaders because – said David Conradie: executive head of the Top Talent Solutions Institute at the IPM Directors Leadership Summit which was held at the Gordon Institute of Business Science in March this year – talent is defined by context. What does this mean?

'Talent' in one business environment might not be considered talent in another company. "If you have a particular business strategy underpinned by an aggressive growth imperative, you'll probably be looking for certain types of ability to drive that agenda," says Conradie.

More importantly, if your business strategy changes those you've identified as high-potential talent for your organisation need to adapt accordingly. "If you decide to change your corporate strategy," he says, "you may be required to make fundamental changes to the structure of your business, for example finding new skills or retrenching. Your definition of talent will shift accordingly."

Conradie cautions it's crucial that you define the purpose that talent is going to serve in your organisation because if you don't know this, your high-potential programme won't amount to much.

What is 'potential'?

According to Conradie, there are different schools of thought when it comes to defining what potential is. Some feel that 'potential' is:

1. When an individual has the qualities to perform or contribute effectively in broader or different roles in the organisation at some point in the future,

2. Associated with future possibilities rather than the problems in current performance.

Some organisations use the term 'potential' generically in phrases such as:

  • 'He or she has potential', or
  • 'He or she is a high potential'.

This suggests potential is used as an independent concept which can be identified and measured independently from the context or the expected end-state. "The implication is that regardless of the context or the environment you operate in, you'll be a high potential. This is the logic underpinning the two statements above.

"However, if you take a more progressive view you'll find that organisation have multiple categories of potential that very specifically define what these various 'talent pools' are for," said Conradie.

How can you identify high potential?

He advised the audience that to identify high potentials, they would be relying on line manager input for the most part. During this process, you'll need to look for evidence of past and current performance.

Line managers need to concentrate on rooting out high potential early on in their careers. The problem is that we often leave identifying high potentials until people have reached certain levels in the organisation. By doing this, we might be overlooking a lot of potential that doesn't ultimately get realised.

Identifying high potentials is not only about the identifying leaders

Identifying high potentials is also about identifying professional and technical specialists who you can move into higher roles. During this process, you need to look for the individuals' potential to rise to higher positions in your organisation.

However, always bear in mind that the criteria you use to identify high potentials could very possibly differ from context to context.