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New Vision on Talent Management

We must change our vision on talent management. Why? Because it is too exclusive, normative and superficial.
It’s exclusive because of the definition of talent.  Talent is too often about the people with the highest potential and/or the highest contribution. In that definition we forget people who are the foundation of continuity and quality. It’s usually a small group of people who decide whether someone belongs to this select group of talented people.
Talent Management is usually extremely normative. The people who decide on who belongs to the talent group put spectacles on that are very biased. The selection does not acknowledge the fact that every person is unique. Or that people are able to compensate lacking competencies by other talents. There are no independent traits. Everything is related. You do not have to “possess” all leadership competencies to be a good leader.
Talent Management is superficial. Why is that?  It focusses only on observable traits: competencies, results. Based on these superficial traits we build ingenious talent processes and systems.  Talent Management can entail processes such as performance management systems, selection, learning, … The focus of many of these approaches is on their efficiency and not on their effectiveness. Hardly anyone is truly satisfied with the performance management system in his or her company.
I am not saying that the concept of competencies has no value within the frame of talent management. But without a more profound approach, these approaches miss their target.

Inclusive, tolerant and existential

Talent Management should become more inclusive, tolerant and existential.
Inclusive means that we acknowledge that everyone in the company has talent to offer. Talent management is oriented towards everyone within the company, not a select group. You might say that it is exclusive anyway, as you select. True. However, if you base your selection on competencies you might be in trouble on the long run.
Tolerance for talent means that you allow people to apply their own strengths and style. It’s useless to push people into a mold. It’s pointless to force people to acquire competencies only because that suits the organisation. If these competencies are not related to the person’s talents and values, the process of molding (instead of learning) will not yield sustainable results. If we accept that people can use various combinations of traits to perform, we embrace a human wealth already available to us. An example of this is extraversion versus introversion. Very often introverted people have fewer opportunities within an organisation. The reason is simple. They do not get noticed. And people assume that introversion is not a positive trait. But that is so wrong. Just check Susan Cain’s Ted Talk about the power of introverts. One thing we have to learn is not to think in dichotomies, black or white.
Existential Talent Management means that we not only focus on the surface, but also on what lies beneath. Talent is related to being, willing, daring, being able and doing. A superficial talent management is focussed on being able and doing. An existential talent management focusses on the deeper aspect of humanity: being and willing. Or identity if you want. Doing is important, but if we focus on being we might build companies that combine culture with personality. We must not forget that the being determines the doing. So if we focus on identity we will focus on things that are not trainable but extremely influential.

Why we do not like existential Talent Management.

Although most of us know that identity is crucial in predicting behaviour, we do not go into it. We are scared. There are two reasons for this. (1) We feel that we are invading a private place. (2) Identity seems less observable then competencies.
But competencies are constructions. You can fake them. Do you know that you can train for assessment centres? You can act your way through it. But is that a problem? Not really. If you can act you can learn. So competencies are trainable, identity isn’t. Identity is very difficult to influence, and yet it’s crucial.

The Smell of People

Let’s compare. Within organisations culture defines how people work.  Sumantra Ghoshal calls this the smell of the place. Identity is the smell of people. Identity is to a person what culture is to organisations. You might think this is disrespectful. But think about it. Why do you love to work with someone? Usually not because of the competencies, but because of more fundamental reasons. We often talk about people in very existential terms. This person I can trust. This is a fundamentally good person. This guy has an amazing energy. My colleague is someone I can build upon. Why would we talk about employees only in terms of their competencies, where in human interaction we talk about identity?
Is it dangerous to focus on deeper traits? The danger of talking about the smell of people is that you might be subjective. Competencies seem to be observable, therefore more objective and certainly less biased. Competencies are comparable. You can rank people according to the degree in which they have acquired them. It’s hard to rank identities. We are who we are. And even when we know that identity determines action, we look at the action, not at its source.

Identity Management

Should we talk about identity management instead of Talent Management? Maybe. You cannot manage identities, you lead people. So maybe we should just drop the term talent management and go back to the term people management. In people management working with identity is important. These are some examples.

  • Selection becomes a more profound business. Instead of selecting on competencies, we need to select more on attitudinal and cognitive traits. Instead of selecting someone who communicates well, you select someone who likes to relate to people. Instead of selecting someone who will do the job, you can look for someone who shares the values of the company and who will fit. Matching identity to culture might be something we will need to do more.
  • Career management is over. Careers drivers are existential questions as people increasingly want to fulfil their lives. So career management is identity-driven.
  • The problem of harassment has to do with identity. Harassment is about destroying someone’s identity and it is an unpleasant human trait for which we cannot have any tolerance.

Allowing people to sculpt their work and career according to their desired life pattern is the greatest outcome of talent management.

Life Sculpting

We often talk about job sculpting. If we allow ourselves to work with identity and not with competencies alone, we enter the realm of life sculpting. Imagine that the people who work in your company can sculpt their lives among other things thanks to the environment that you have to offer. Allowing people to sculpt their work and career according to their desired life pattern is the greatest outcome of talent management, or identity management.

David Ducheyne is the founder of Otolith. As a former HR and business leader he focuses now on humanising strategy execution.


  • Ryan McShane says:

    Nicely done David. Thanks for sharing and bringing light to these differences in talent management today and what will guide us to greater impact in the future. Keep on keeping on we need your influence 🙂

  • gverlin says:

    Finally an inclusive talent approach.
    A lot of talent in our society and in our companies isn’t detected yet.
    We will need it, everyone who has skills should contribute. Skills are trainable, but attitude too. You just need to detect and turn the right key to open someone’s talent box. And indeed, then you often touch the person’s identity.
    This vision will change the way we usually interview some candidates, the way we evaluate employees. A new HR approach that has to be integrated into the people management skills of our managers. Did anyone say HR is no longer relevant? 😉

  • Rebecca Schalm says:

    Thanks David, I enjoyed your post and it got me thinking. A couple of random thoughts:
    – We frequently use the words ‘talent’ or ‘potential’ when we should use the word ‘promotability’. No question we are over-obsessed with identifying and developing those who show promotability promise, often at the exclusion of the 95% of talented people.
    – If we limit the conversation to ‘promotability potential’, strong processes strive to tap into identity rather than competencies. It is really the only way to try to measure potential. Competencies simply measure present state on a small group of behaviours rather than potential (which for decades has been proven to be associated with such things as learning agility, risk taking, self-awareness, etc.)
    – I believe that for selection purposes, a balance between what recruitment generally does (measures past performance and current competencies) and what assessment by people like psychologists does (measure identify, fit, etc.) is needed. Most organizations narrow the funnel too quickly and are left with a small group of candidates who fit the brief from a superficial perspective (have the ‘right’ background and experiences) while eliminating those who have the right identity but need shaping on the experience and competency side. But my search friends tell me organizations don’t want to buy unproven talent. Making the importance of cultivating it inside even more important.

  • Inge says:

    David, Thanks for sharing these insights.
    I really love the idea of people being in the drivers’ seat. Talent management imposing norms, imposing people to focus on ‘eternal growth’ , is really outdated but still very actively present in organisations.
    Talent Management today is about deeply connecting to our ‘people’ and supporting them to discover their own goals & to make a match with the goals of the organisation. The word ‘identity’ is somehow tricky. How can we ever grasp a person’s identity? There is of course no problem when we leave the normative way of thinking & working. Like you suggest as well! A great challenge for HR to open up, to explore totally new ways of working and thinking.

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