logo
For This Issue
Featured Agencies:

app.store
army cpol
bea
commerce
fns
foreign agricultural
forest service
job scams
fsis
hhs
noaa
Pentagon Force
usptp
Law Enforcement Jobs:

Talent and Its Enemies

Gabe Heilig

Founder, Action Resumes—Pentagon

Talent—it’s a problem
If there is one thing I’ve learned in doing the work I do, it’s this:

Most people are bigger than the jobs they do.

Very few jobs engage the best of us on a regular basis. Other than those charmed moments when an unusual problem arises that we engage and figure out how to solve, a lot of our potential contribution gets left at our desks—unmade, unseen and unacknowledged. People are bigger than the jobs they do, yet employers seem to care more about the jobs than the people who do them. No company or economy can sustain this attitude indefinitely.

It should hardly be surprising, then, that over 71% of American workers describe themselves as feeling un-engaged in their jobs. That’s the figure reported by the Gallup organization in its most recent survey of worker attitudes. This finding contains an implicit critique of how we are seeing—or not seeing—each other in the workplace.

The amazing fact is: all that most employers know about their employees is whether they can do the jobs they were hired to do. Everything else about their talent and skill sets is regarded as irrelevant and not worth being concerned about.

This attitude is the logical result of the fact that organizations conduct the hiring process from the outside, in. Why? Because most employers hire to fill jobs —not to find talent . Ironically, this way of assigning talent to tasks leads employers to short-change themselves . Because of its resulting blow to worker morale, this dynamic insults employees, who feel unseen and unappreciated by their employers—a situation that leads them to feel un-engaged at their desks and in their jobs.

This growing dissatisfaction with the hiring process is unmistakable. Harvard Business Review published three cover stories in its Summer 2015 issue. Each of them argued the same point: “ Let’s Blow Up HR! ” Almost no one who participates in the hiring process seems happy with it.

Talent and its enemies
Some things are irreducible. Talent is one of them. Subjecting something so personal to Big Data and Data Analytics misses the point. Talent is what created Data Analytics . Talent is not a printout sitting in the trunk, being driven somewhere so it can be “managed” when it gets there. No— Talent is what drives the whole enterprise .

Over the last few months I’ve been exploring an arena that HR trendsetters call “talent management.” Until recently, HR was “human capital management.” Before that, it was about “human resources” management. And before that, it was just called “personnel.” Recently, some consulting firms have been using the phrase, Talent Management, which sounds like it’s personal, individually focused, and very, very Talented. Except that it isn’t.

Talent Management firms propose to manage Talent as though it’s an abstract resource that can be inventoried and managed via software. This approach overlooks one fundamental fact: Talent can only be found in one place—in individual human beings.

Talent doesn’t exist outside the individual persons in whom it has taken up residence. Talent is both a mystery and a living force—apparently genetic in its origins, spiritual in its implications, human in its expressions.

There is no algorithm for talent.

And there’s no warehouse where Talent gets “managed” like cartons of engine parts in a warehouse. Talent isn’t a commodity. It’s also not a collective “resource.” It can’t be managed collectively. It lives in individuals and it must be managed in individuals. For employers, that’s a problem.

Organizations don’t like to deal with individuals, whether we’re talented or not. As individuals, we’re too messy, inefficient and unpredictable to deal with. We don’t fit inside a neatly drawn org-chart. We don’t follow our official job descriptions. We’re not cookie-cut to order. And we’re certainly not all the same. We’re just—too—individual.

Organizations tend not to like this about us.

Many organizations like to talk about how, “We respect our people”—but when it comes down to it they’ll almost always place their chips on efficiency and predictability. That feels like a safer bet, even if it keeps repeating the same inputs and outputs, which keep getting the same results.

Talent, on the other hand, is unpredictable. It’s liable to think of and try to do—well, almost anything. It may want to stop doing its job for a few hours and start inventing things. Organizations and their managers often respond with alarm. “We can’t have that.” No self-respecting organization is going to stop what it’s doing just to pay attention to the individual talent of its employees. That feels “inefficient.” Even vaguely “unprofessional.” And it just smells like trouble. Managers won’t tolerate this.

Talent seems inefficient because it tends to operate by its own rules and its own will and wits. It doesn’t need or want instructions about what to do or how to get it done. It doesn’t need instructions. It’s Talent, and that’s what Talent does. It breaks rules in order to create something the rules never thought about. Rules can’t make this leap of imagination. Rules are bound by—rules. However, Talent can make this leap. And it wants to. And it does. And there’s the rub.

Too much Talent rubs some managers the wrong way. They get frightened by it, thinking that all this Talent is ganging up on them, that Talent wants to take their jobs, or compete with them for promotions these managers have been preparing to apply for. To many managers, Talent looks like a threat, not a gift. No wonder they want to Manage it—which is to say, they want to control it.

But the thing about Talent is that it can be coached, but it can’t be controlled. Talent doesn’t follow the rules. Talent writes new rules. As Picasso said, “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” That’s the game Talent wants to play.

Most organizations are extremely reluctant to let employees play that game. After all, what’s the point of having authority as a manager unless you use it? And what better use of authority can there be than controlling what your underlings can and cannot do?

But there’s this startling piece of wisdom by Harriet Rubin, “Freedom is actually a bigger game than power. Power is about what you can control. Freedom is about what you can unleash.”


Gabe Heilig has assisted some 5,300 people in advancing their professional lives. You can reach him at gabe@ideadesign-dc.com.