Talent: What is it and Who has it?

Psychology 101: The 101 Ideas, Concepts and Theories that Have Shaped Our World - Adrian Furnham 2021

Talent: What is it and Who has it?

There is no substitute for talent. Industry and all the virtues are of no avail. (Aldous Huxley, Point Counter Point, 1940)

You have flair. It’s handed out at birth…. And as always happens in these cases. It’s always given to the very people who in my opinion do least to earn it. (Alan Ayckbourn, Joking Apart, 1979)

There is no such thing as a great talent without great will-power. (H. De Balzac, La Musee

Du Department, 1830)

If you want one year of prosperity, grow grain; ten years, grow trees; one hundred years, grow people. (Chinese proverb)

It is difficult not to have escaped noticing that ’talent management’ has become a fashionable, Human Resource (HR), buzz word. Yet it remains unclear what talent actually is; whether it needs special nurturing to last and what it predicts. If talent is not merely a new name for an old construct or set of constructs, what does it comprise? And how does one develop a person into a talented manager?

There are various specific questions for those trying to assess and evaluate talent. Here are some issues and questions to ponder: write down all the synonyms and antonyms for talent that you can think of. Have you ever worked with, or for, a really talented person? How did you know? Describe your observations. Should you invest more or less time and money into the talent group than those not in the group? If the talented are in some way gifted, should we not invest more in those who, for whatever reason, are seen to have less talent? What, in your view, are the three easiest and the three hardest things involved with talent management?


It is important to have a clear, specific and evidence-based definition of the concept of talent to know what to look for. Yet, despite the increasing number of books written in the area the concept remains unclear.

Talent is, quite simply, not a psychological concept. One approach is to list possible synonyms for talent. These include: blessed, exceptional, experienced, flair, genius, giftedness, high potential, precocious, prodigy, superstars, wonderkids or wunderkinds. It is really only ’giftedness’ that has any serious academic investigation.

Talent implies the possibility of people becoming more than they are. Silzer and Church (2009) argue that the concept of potential (talent) is all about something existing in possibility only. Is it a singular, immutable and context independent trait or defined by, and brought out only in, certain situations. They note that high potential can be defined by role, level, breadth, record, strategic position or strategic area.

They analysed 11 companies’ definitions of talent/high potential and found evidence of six/seven categories, variously defined:

Cognitive: Cognitive ability/complexity, intelligence, navigates ambiguity, breadth of perspective, judgement, insightful, strategic reasoning, tactical problem solving.

Personality: Dominance, sociability, stability, interpersonal, emotional intelligence, authentic, optimistic, personal maturity, respect for people, self-aware, integrity.

Learning: Adaptability, versatility, learning agility, receptive to feedback, eager to learn, flexible, seeks feedback, learns from mistakes.

Leadership: Competent, inspiring, develops others, brings out the best in people, influencing, challenges the status quo.

Motivation: Drive, aspiration, engagement, initiative, energy, risk-taking, power/control, tenacity, passion for results, courage to take risks, commitment to company/impact.

Performance: Leadership experiences.

Other things: Technical skills, culture fit, promotability, business knowledge/acumen.


From a management perspective there seems to be a number of important questions:

Attracting talent: This involves the recruitment of talented people, identifying the best methods to assess talent and finding ways to persuade talented people to join the organization. This is essentially a recruiting and selection task. The idea is aimed at making these especially (and perhaps unusually) talented people favourably disposed to your organizations such that they apply for advertised positions.

Developing talent: One of the concepts associated with talent is the idea of potential to rise up the organization to ever more important and challenging jobs. For this it is thought (even) talented people require particular training, coaching or mentoring.

Retaining talent: This involves keeping talented people after they have been selected. It involves understanding their particular and specific ’package’ and training needs. They might be differently motivated than less talented groups, and the task is to find out how to keep them both happy and productive.

Transferring talent: Inevitably, talented people move — they move up the organization (almost by definition); they move to sister companies; they may head up overseas divisions of the company. Furthermore, they leave the organization. It is important to ensure that all issues associated with out-placement, relocation and retirement are done well.


Talented leaders mention six powerful learning experiences that they believe shaped them.

• The first is early work experience. This may be a ’part-time’ job at school, a relatively unskilled summer holiday job at university, or one of the first jobs they ever had. For some it was the unadulterated tedium or monotony which powerfully motivated them never to want to repeat it.

• The second factor is the experience of other people, and it is nearly always an immediate boss, but can be a colleague or one of the serious grown-ups. They are almost always remembered as either very bad or very good: both teach lessons.

• The third factor is short-term assignments: project work, standing in for another or interim management. Because this takes people out of their comfort zone and exposes them to issues and problems they have never before confronted, they learn quickly.

Fourth, first major line assignment. This is often the first promotion, foreign posting or departmental move to a higher position. It is often frequently cited because suddenly the stakes were higher, everything more complex and novel and ambiguous.

• The fifth factor is hardships of various kinds. It is about attempting to cope in a crisis which may be professional or personal. It teaches the real value of things: technology, loyal staff and supportive head offices.

Sixth on the list comes the management development stuff. Some remember and quote their MBA experience; far fewer some specific (albeit fiendishly expensive) course. One or two quote the experience of receiving 360-degree feedback. More recall a coach, either because they were so good or so awful. This is bad news for some trainers, business school teachers and coaches.


Dries, N. (2013). The psychology of talent management: A review and research agenda. Human Resource Management Review, 23 (272—85).

MacRae, I., & Furnham, A. (2013). High Potential. London: Bloomsbury.

Silzer R., & Church, A. (2009). The pearls and perils of identifying potential. Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 2, 377—412.