“Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.” – Calvin Coolidge
Just over two years ago, a story crossed my desk about a young leader with a seemingly bright future selected for separation. I knew him to be a singular talent, an exceptional officer whose entrepreneurism and drive distinguished him among his peers. We were distantly acquainted, linked across a web of social media, but I empathized with the stages of grief he was experiencing as he came to grips with the terminal status of his relatively short military career. I reposted the story, offering a few comments about how we continue to bleed talent when we need it most. In my mind, the loss was an unfortunate circumstance of a large bureaucracy unable and often unwilling to manage its own talent.
Within a day, I had a starkly different perspective. Two emails from two separate leaders arrived in my inbox, each offering a view of the situation at odds with the published account, but both conveying very similar messages: this was not an issue of talent management. In their own words, they shared anecdotes of a remarkably talented junior officer who just didn’t work well with others. When he was placed in a position of authority, he performed well; when subordinated to a role as part of a team, the drop in performance was noticeable, often accompanied by disciplinary issues. He defied authority, undercut his leadership, and, ultimately, set himself apart from his peers in ways that ensured a short tenure in uniform.
The luxury of inefficiency
There’s no question that we often struggle with talent management. The larger the institution, the greater the challenge, it seems. In a recent post, four junior naval officers decried the lack of talent management in the Department of Defense: “The Pentagon has the luxury of being able to operate ineffectively so long as jobs are filled and tasks are completed.” Their solution – a learning-enabled talent management system that could foster a revolution in personnel management – is both brilliant and short-sighted. Brilliant, because such a system could transform how human resource professionals manage talent. Short-sighted, because there’s a lot more to managing talent than most people realize.
First, define “talent.” What is it? There’s a pretty wide gulf between coup d’œil and a guy who can balance a beer bottle on his nose, but a certain degree of talent is involved in both. Defining the desired set of talent “attributes” is undeniably a human task; cataloging and managing that data can and should be entrusted to a learning-enabled system.
Second, measure talent. What constitutes true talent within a specified area? The seventieth percentile? The fiftieth? How about in the aggregate, where multiple talent attributes are being assessed, collated, and catalogued? Again, defining those standards is likely a human task, but the more factors being measured, the greater the need for a machine-learning solution.
Third, prioritize talent. On the surface, this seems relatively simple but is likely to be the most complex task of all. Assigned a clear set of priorities, a learning-enabled system could prioritize fill across the services, but prioritizing talent might prove more challenging. Do higher priority units automatically receive a higher level of talent? Or do we balance talent in the aggregate to ensure that we don’t inadvertently field organizations with our worst and dimmest? You want a leadership challenge? Try leading a staff section in which your success depends on your ability to get the most out of a group of individuals who have all been relieved of duty at least once. I’ve been there; it’s not fun.
Finally, manage talent. Like many things in life, talent is a rare and finite resource. Everybody wants those who fall within the ninetieth percentile; that upper band is where you typically find your best and brightest. The next band – let’s call it the seventieth percentile for the sake of argument – includes an incredible array of talent that could easily be among the ninetieth percentile but may not have been identified as such for one reason or another. The remainder of the population includes pockets of niche talent, people who may excel at a single skill but might be at risk if assigned outside that specialty. And, of course, there are those in the mix with little or no talent. Let’s not forget that they’re part of the algorithm, too.
How Intangibles Influence Talent
But we’re really only focusing on the tangibles, attributes we can easily measure and quantify. What about the intangibles the influence talent? In his groundbreaking book, Iconoclast, neuroscientist and New York Times bestselling author Gregory Berns explored how our “best and brightest” leverage perception, imagination, fear, and social intelligence to achieve success. Berns’s research underscores the importance of the intangibles that separate the talented among us from the truly successful. Those intangibles matter; they’re the difference between someone of average talent who works like a fiend under pressure and someone of incredible talent who believes working on a team is beneath them.
The harsh reality of talent management is that there simply isn’t enough talent to satisfy everyone, and there will always be “haves” and have nots.” We can certainly do better at managing and retaining the talent we do have, and the idea of leveraging learning-enabled systems is a critical tool in that process. The most important tool, however, is leadership.
Leadership and talent go hand-in-hand. As leaders, if we take the time to cultivate it, to shape it, to nurture it, everyone reaps the rewards. If we consume talent without regard to the greater needs of the institution, we threaten the very fabric of our future, the foundations of our profession. In a megalithic bureaucracy like the Department of Defense, there are two types of talent managers: Those who contribute to our profession, and those who contribute to the bureaucracy. We should all aspire to the former, and we fight an endless battle against the latter. One recognizes, develops, and rewards talent; the other consumes and discards it.