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Talent is a thing – a very measurable, valuable thing

Blog Post

Written by John Berry on 15th January 2018. Revised 16th November 2020.

8 min read

BBC Broadcasting HouseA friend recently drew my attention to a podcast. Back in February 2017, Margaret Heffernan, the writer and entrepreneur, presented a piece on the BBC’s Analysis programme on Radio 4. This article featured comments from successful business people like Richard Branson and Jamie Oliver. It also gave stage to a number of acclaimed academics like James Flynn and Angela Duckworth. And it asked a simple question: is talent a thing?

The podcast
is well worth listening to.

So, what’s the truth of the matter. Is talent a thing? And more importantly, is it useful?

Here’s the TimelessTime take on this very complex subject.

The science in the podcast

The article is, in essence, an attack on the idea that intelligence (and with that, academic achievement) is a good predictor of future performance. In this much it’s a bit muddled. It suggests that talent, ability and intelligence are all the same thing.

And more disappointingly, the article suggests that somehow, none of what Margaret Heffernan and her guests cite is known. It’s presented as a number of shocking exposés. Yet, a rough count across the article yields about 30 theories and ideas cited that are well accepted, at least by academics and trained organisational psychologists. Here are two examples.

Firstly, humans can be split into those with growth mind-sets and those with achievement mind-sets. That’s accepted – and the strength of the need for growth can be measured in a term called ‘growth needs strength’ or GNS.

Secondly, work sample tests are one of the best predictors of performance in a job. That too is accepted. TimelessTime has several blogs that discuss how to construct valid work sample tests.

In fact, Margaret Heffernan’s article made no new scientific claim or personal experience (of her guests or others) that is not already supported by established science.

The problem left unsaid is that most hiring managers and most professionals in the recruitment business are substantially ignorant about how to select new recruits effectively. Most will interview and select based on their past experience.

Two additional points were well made. Firstly, traditional unstructured interviewing is a poor predictor. Secondly, selection is complex. We agree with both those points, but that does not mean that effective selection is impossible or even difficult. Selecting the best just takes structure and analysis.

Let’s look at the detailed claims in the article.

Talent, intelligence and ability

The overriding theme of the article was that talent, intelligence and ability are the same thing, and that intelligence is a poor predictor of performance in the workplace. This latter point is the single claim that is counter to established science.

This claim also needs explanation and definition for talent, intelligence and ability are certainly linked but not the same. For reference, the Cambridge English Dictionary defines ‘talent’ as “a natural ability to be good at something, especially without being taught”. There are two ways of thinking about intelligence. First, it comprises two parts - fluid intelligence and crystallised intelligence. Fluid intelligence is innate. Crystallised intelligence is learned. This supports Margaret Heffernan’s point that you should never write off people who develop and could succeed later in life. Second, intelligence, or general mental ability as psychologists know it, is the ability to reason. And this reasoning is in three parts: abstract reasoning, numerical reasoning and verbal reasoning. Abstract reasoning – the ability to think conceptually and creatively – is innate. Numerical and verbal reasoning are learned. So those who achieve later in life are likely using their developed crystallised intelligence that gives them numeric and verbal reasoning.

But if a manager wants high creativity using a person’s fluid intelligence giving them high abstract reasoning, the manager had better select for it. Fluid intelligence can’t be learned.

Some 85 years of science has determined that the single best predictor of performance in the workplace for jobs requiring cognitive ability – jobs often described as ‘knowledge’ jobs – is intelligence. It is of course not the only predictor. Prediction effectiveness is enhanced by using several predictors together. Jobs needing social interaction need those whose personality is high in extroversion. And as Laszlo Bock, former director of Google, notes in the article, the personality trait of conscientiousness is important. But science suggests that if there were only one predictor, choose intelligence every time. So, firms are wise to consider intelligence – but not exclusively.

Introducing competence

Those of higher intelligence also tend to find learning easier – particularly when they also have a personality that enables them to be open to new ideas.

Laszlo Bock also says that managers should not screen for knowledge about the job to be done. This is a bizarre thing to say, but it is in line with a claim by Richard Branson in previous blogs that managers should hire for attitude. When hiring surgeons, engineers and pilots, this is nonsense. It’s fundamentally important to select for job-related competencies and necessary behaviours. Otherwise, the assumption must be tabled that all competencies and behaviours can be learned on the job. This may be true for non-cognitive, repetitive, computer-mediated jobs. It is not true for creative, knowledge-centric jobs.

In any case, all jobs demand some base level of competence, even if just to read, write, add and subtract. It’s just a question of what this base is, case by case.

About ability

This brings us to ability. Ability can be re-defined as ‘the ability to do…’, like ‘the jobholder shall be able to fly a Boing 737 airliner in a thunderstorm’. With such a wide competence statement, it’s clear that there’s more than intelligence needed.

Intelligence is a narrow individual difference. Ability is wide. And we’d argue that ‘talent’ is the all-encompassing set of personal characteristics that allow a person to do a job, and to grow in that career in the future. Talent encompasses both intelligence and ability.

Margaret Heffernan muddies two ideas – that intelligence is a poor determinant of performance and that people develop later and can learn. She then uses those two to say that talent (and by that she means intelligence) is not a thing that should be used to select job candidates.

But the issue for a hiring manager is that he or she needs to make a decision now for the coming two or three years. The hiring manager can’t wait. Of course, they’ll want to hire considering the future career of the person with their firm. But as Margaret Heffernan herself noted, we just don’t know the talent needed to do the jobs of the future. So, it’s nonsense to say that a hiring manager should not consider intelligence, ability or talent.

And because every jobholder will likely change jobs in the firm, that ability to learn and to grow their competencies is essential.

Reality and the practitioner's view

Of huge importance are the comments in the article from Geraldine Haley of Standard Charter Bank. Apart from noting the established wisdom that panel interviews are flawed, she suggests that selection should be an inquisitorial, analytical activity that gathers evidence supporting (or refuting) the ability of the candidate to do the job in the future.

So, we could go on.

Overall the BBC Radio 4 Analysis article by Margaret Heffernan is good. This is not because it lays out current knowledge on selection – it rather presents as if little is known, and that’s unfortunate. But its sentiments and conclusions are sound.

Selection as an activity aims to use a set of criteria to predict who will do well in a job. It requires the hiring manager to use a set of tests to discover evidence about the candidate in a structured, inquisitorial and analytical fashion. Decision-making is not gut-feel, built from experience of doing hundreds of interviews. It’s the appliance of science and the weighing of evidence against the requirements for performance in the job – whatever those are.

Selection requires first that the hiring manager develops a clear profile of the person they feel will succeed. From this, he or she builds a set of tests and pre-scored interview questions – likely comprising assessment of intelligence, personality, competencies, behaviours and person-environment fit. Together they establish
whether the candidate has the talent needed.

Thing or no thing?

So yes, talent is a thing – a very measurable, valuable thing. It’s not the narrow, useless thing that Margaret Heffernan suggests, but a multi-dimensional set of characteristics about each candidate that need to be known before making a job offer. And Margaret Heffernan’s article says as much.

And if you'd like to be able to gather that multi-dimensional set of characteristics for use in your selection process, call us.