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You are a talent...soon!

No you didn't read the title wrongly, and no, it is not a typo. Yes, you are a talent, but not just yet. Now how can this be, you think. If I "am" a talent, it means now. If I will soon to be a talent, then the headline should read, "You will soon be a talent". How can I both be a talent, and yet not be one? This, in essence, is the talent conundrum that we are facing right now in Singapore, and I hope that with this article, we open up the discussion on talent, extend the way we view it, and realise that we are ALL talented. No, this is not some NLP-positive-thinking-the-giant-within type article; today I am dead serious about the way we look at talent, and with some scientific rigour, I shall show that most of the talent developers out there are defining talent too narrowly, and if we pour resources to develop "talent" the way we are doing now, we are not only shooting ourselves in the foot, we are also leaving a lot of money on the table; money that other broad-minded competitors will pick up for free. If you have ever been on the receiving end of a lack of talent in your organisation, or if you are a talent-in-waiting, today's article is for you. I will show you that you are already a talent, except that you and everyone else around you, may not have seen it. Read on, talented ones!

Definition of talent

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines talent as "a special ability that allows one to do something well". The Cambridge English Dictionary defines talent as a person with a "natural ability to be good at something, especially without being taught". The first definition seems alright until we look deeper to ask what "doing something well" actually means? There surely are differing degrees of wellness, and at which point does well translate to talent? Could the first definition be too broad? Then the second definition is better, isn't it? Someone is a talent especially if that someone can do something well naturally, without having been taught to do it? I hope that those of you who read this will feel indignant at the remark - that talent is a God-given right, and will only be regarded so if you have not been taught do be good at it. So, if you were taught, then you would be less talented. Does this give you a sense that talent is too narrowly, or even poorly, defined?

Let's go back to the Merriam-Webster definition again. While we mentioned that it might be too loosely defined, the fact of the matter is, it should! That one has a special ability to do something well is a perfect definition because it does not discriminate between natural-born ability and learnt ability. If you do something well, and by well, we mean that they meet all known and accepted standards, you are a talent. By this definition, can a road-sweeper be talented? Sure he can, if he can keep the roads clean and tidy within a well-accepted standard of cleanliness and timelines. Can a janitor be talented? Sure, if he applies techniques to keep the facilities clean, dry and smelling fresh every minute of the day. Can a production worker be talented? Sure, if she is able to handle more pieces a day, with less mistakes than expected. Can an admin clerk be talented? The answer again, is yes! By Merriam-Webster's definition, yes.

Then why is it that talent development managers only see talent as the top 1% of performers in an organisation? Aren't we missing the opportunity of developing at least the next 10%, or even 25%? What if one quarter of your organisation's workforce is a talent? What if half of your workforce are recognised as talent? What will that do to your company? To the staff? To your brand? To staff turnover?

The Parochial System has failed

The fact is, we have been led very much by the parochial system of talent definition, and that while Singapore embraces meritocracy - loosely defined as being blind to culture, race, language, religion, family background and promotes people on merit - the parochial system is such that it narrowly defines these talents. After all, how many Indian Chiefs can there be in a tribe? With this very narrow perspective of talent, we focus all our attention on the Indian Chief-wannabes, and discard the rest to "serfdom". We exhort the "serfs" to do well, to break out of their mould, so that they can join the elites through meritocracy. But, if they cannot do that, then they're on their own. They will not be given a leg up because everyone is treated equally in a meritocratic society; and one has to scrape one's way through - show one's natural ability without any external help - and rise to the top of the heap. Once there, you will then be accepted into the elite, and there, you are the "talent". Once in, you will receive disproportionate amounts of help to develop yourself further. But isn't that ironic? If these people have the talent to excel on their own, why would they now need more help to further breakaway from the pack? Shouldn't we spend that money to raise the water level, so to speak, to quote our Deputy Prime Minister, Tharman Shanmugaratnam? No, the parochial system of meritocracy has led to elitism, and this is still very much entrenched in our system today. The sad thing is, organisations have viewed talent in the same narrow way, and this condemns people into pigeonholes they don't deserve to be in; and also curtails their contribution to the company. Hence, a self-fulfilling negative spiral develops.

We are all talent

But it doesn't have to be this way. We need to expand our application of the word talent. In Singapore, as in many countries that grew fat on industrialisation, many people still treat staff as cogs in the machinery. In fact, classical economics have classified labour as a factor of production, alongside land and capital. What does this do to industrialists? Treat people the same way we treat land and capital. Squeeze out every ounce of productive value we can from them. An idle machine does not make money but production overruns also don't; however industrialists still view an idle machine with disdain, hence they still want to see the machine whirring in the midst of contracting job orders! People cannot be treated the same as land or capital, but participants of a course I recently facilitated told me that their boss expects them to be at their desk from 9am to 6pm regardless! This is an MNC, no less! We have moved beyond the Industrial Age but we are still treating our people like machines that can be worked for maximum productivity - and by productivity, it means continued production. This must stop immediately; productivity is not doing things faster, it is doing things better. We therefore need to upgrade our concept of talent and recognise four things:

(1) talent can be acquired, and it does not have to be an in-born ability

(2) talented people strive for excellence in everything that they do

(3) talented people search for ways to do things better

(4) talented people continue to develop themselves, and don't rest on their laurels

Don't you think that if you had someone like this on your team - be it in the rubbish clearing team, or the toilet cleaning team, or the road-sweeping team - you would consider this person a talent? Well, I would!

Key talent traits

If you agree with the four behavioural descriptors of talent, then you will agree that these form the key talent traits. And if you look deeper into these descriptors, you will also see the same descriptors of the growth mindset. Ultimately it does make sense, doesn't it? How can you be a talent if you don't have a growth mindset? If you are not open to learning? If you don't step out of your comfort zone and test a new hypothesis? If you don't do all these, you cannot be a talent. So the two are really one.

There are five major trait sets in the growth mindset. These are:

A. Curiosity & Development

This trait is one's inclination to unlearn and relearn new knowledge. It captures one's affinity to question the status quo, and goes out to find out new ways of doing things better.

B. Resilience & Boldness

This trait shows a person's ability to "bounce back" in the face of "failure". In other words, it shows one's affinity to look at such "failure" with humour and the constructive reactions to make it better the next time around.

C. Diligence & Courage

This shows a person's fearlessness trait. It is one's risk-taking affinity. After all, when one puts his/her current knowledge on the line, and goes out of the way to question the status quo, one is also risking being wrong, maybe even being ridiculed or laughed at.

D. Progress & Agility

This is a person's tendency to get going rather than to wait for all the ducks to line up in a row. The focus of this trait is its forward pace, matched by flexibility to change.

E. Humility & Discipline

This trait is the tendency to let go of past successes and the discipline to take corrective actions for the new normal. It show's one's affinity to let go of what he/she thinks is right, and embrace new, current realities.

All these traits work together to drive a talent mentality, a growth mindset.

Why not yet?

So, if you had the traits, does that make you a talent? Well here's where the "not yet" comes in. Having the traits means that you have the affinity to embrace the growth mindset, but it does not mean that you do. Some people do not know that it is in them, or that they should be applying them, what with our meritocratic system. Some are simply waiting to be empowered to unleash the growth mindset, the talent mentality. By first understanding what our current traits inclinations are, we will be able to identify where we may be strong, and where we may need to focus personal development in.

Take a look at the growth mindset profile above. Let us assume that the graph above belongs to a talent who has not shown his/her full potential. A score of 2.4 and above denotes the growth mindset, the higher the score, the greater the growth potential. A score of less than 2.4 denotes the fixed mindset, the lower the score, the greater the fixed potential.

So, what can we say about this person? Well, (s)he has shown significant affinity to look at things and find new ways to do them, test them out, and tweak the solution to meet standards. This will be a talent in any organisation, regardless of the position (s)he holds. If (s)he is not already doing this (which is quite unlikely), teach him/her how to unlock new ways of achieving and then step aside. You will be amazed by the outcome! But take note not to allow a sense of "I know better" to creep in. The relatively lower Humility & Discipline score shows the tendency to be more held back by pride, by past successes. Fortunately, we don't need to worry about that too much because the relative strengths of the other traits will help pull the person along the discovery track. Keeping him/her on the learning curve will keep the humility trait up as well.

Develop your talent appropriately

So we're back to where we started by asking ourselves who our talent are. Traits are not defined by education background, by knowledge, by culture, class or any such demographic. Hence, you can have a janitor with high 3's scores for all the five traits sets, as you can have an Army scholar with low 2's scores for those same traits. So who is the talent here? We are not suggesting that your straight-A scholar cannot be a talent; neither are we suggesting that your O-level dropout must be one. However, by using a traits based point of view of talent, we circumvent the elitist system, and develop all the people who can contribute to the further growth of our organisation. Isn't that what talent development should really do? And when you develop them, don't simply throw them all in the same pot and run the same programme. Give them level-appropriate training so as to bring out the best in their talent traits. Then, take a step back and them them show their magic.

About the growth mindset profile

The growth mindset profile used above was generated by our Success Quotient Intelligence Growth Mindset assessment. This is a traits-based assessment that maps out your growth mindset inclinations, and shows you where you may have strength in and where you may want to focus your personal development. If you are interested to know where your growth mindset inclinations are, why not sign up for your own growth mindset assessment for free? Simply click on the button below:

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