How can companies promote talent if they can’t agree on what that is?

Managers can have very different perception of what constitutes a ‘high potential’ staffer

As we edge closer towards the end of the year, many companies will be starting to conduct reviews and appraisals that are normally tied to rewarding high performers with salary adjustments and bonuses and considering developmental needs.

While these reviews may be transparent, with common questions and forms, management teams can often be guilty of introducing inherent ambiguity into discussions around talent by using subjective terms such as "high potential", "rising star", and "future leader".

In extreme circumstances, the inability to define talent within the organisational context can create unhealthy discourse, where some attempt to convince others, either subtly or explicitly, that their understanding is the right, best or most effective interpretation.

This leads to the key question: how can organisations objectively decide between people regarding who should be labelled as talent or not and receive the potential benefits of such a status?


Additionally, staff who do not meet management’s undefined criteria may be left frustrated at the nature of the decision-making process, while those who are considered to be part of the “in crowd” may be less concerned about how decisions were arrived at.

Although some companies might correctly argue they possess a well-developed means of defining talent, our research, published in the International Journal of Human Resource Management, illustrates that executives hold very different perspectives on the characteristics required for an individual to be identified or classified as being of greater value than the majority of their peers.

What is talent?

Even within organisations, where managers used similar phrases when referring to talent, we found that their definitions varied. This can be highly problematic where there is a lack of agreement and consistency in how to determine who should receive such a status or label in the workforce.

Consequently, organisations should not assume that everyone is singing off the same hymn sheet when it comes to identifying the key attributes to differentiate between promotion candidates.

To alleviate the problem, we suggest that companies need to define what talent means long before evaluations and decisions are made. To identify and nurture skilled individuals, organisations also need to be able to pinpoint the skills, capabilities and competencies required for people to play pivotal roles in the future.

This is particularly pertinent if companies want to identify talented individuals who can disproportionately contribute to strategy and capitalise on the efficiency benefits arising from automation and technological innovations.

Failure to provide clarity and transparency may lead to disenfranchised workers who believe they did not get a “fair go”, which often leads to additional support, investment and opportunities being provided.

How is it that, in otherwise successful organisations, many perceptions exist as to who confers the most value to the company? We suggest a significant issue is that key internal stakeholders spend insufficient time talking about talent and how it is discerned.

Talking about talent is crucial because our interpretations can be very different. We would encourage you to talk about talent and what it means. This will allow you to analyse language patterns and to garner an informed understanding of what talent means to senior stakeholders.

Guide the discussion

The following steps may be worth considering to guide the discussion around talent and what it means in your organisation.

1. As part of an individual task, reflect on what the term “talent” means to you. If you find yourself referring to high performers, then, in the idealised sense, think about what a higher performer looks like in your head. As part of this process, take time to reflect on the reasons, factors or variables that influence this perspective.

Ask team members to do the same but focus on what attributes they believe a talented person should hold within the context of your organisations.

2. Reflect on what you value in your employees. What do you appreciate within the workplace – be it a smile, name recognition, deadline adherence or individuals who are there when you need them?

Ask your team to do the same. This task facilitates insights to widen what individuals value in others within the workplace.

3. Analyse language patterns to discern where stakeholders agree and disagree. While formal procedures may prioritise performance and potential, this system may not align with the current and future talent needs of the business.

For example, if your company is in the process of realigning in the wake of the pandemic, the skills that you require are likely to shift also.

When you know what individuals value and how they attribute meaning to talent, your company can begin to build a unique talent strategy that aligns with the organisation’s ambitions, making it easier to gain a competitive advantage.

Prof Anthony McDonnell is professor of human resource management and director of the HR Research Centre at Cork University Business School, University College Cork. Dr Sharna Wiblen is a lecturer in human resource management at Sydney Business School, University of Wollongong, Australia