HR Leads Business

Feb 15, 2019 | Ginny Engholm

Is it Time to Rethink the Idea of ‘Talent?’

With the rapid pace of technology and innovation today, HR leaders are focusing more on hiring for the skills they will need in the future. Gone are the days of creating a job description to fill a job role at a company. Companies today need people with the ability to adapt to changing work environments and to upskill and reskill throughout their career.

With all this focus on skills, though, the idea of talent can sometimes get overlooked. But what is the difference between talent and skill? Are there consequences for recruitment and retention that come from focusing on one at the expense of the other? How important is talent for employee success? 

To find out, we surveyed 1,876 HR professionals about the difference between talent and skill and how they approach them in making decisions about recruitment and employee development. Of our participants, 56 percent held managerial or executive HR positions and 44 percent held post-graduate degrees.

Here’s what our study revealed about how HR professionals view talent and skill and how rethinking our approach to talent can help improve employee development. 

Talent and Skill -- The Same but Different 

Within HR, the difference between talent and skill are not clearly defined. Our study showed that a large percentage of HR professionals use talent and skill synonymously. In fact, 31 percent of respondents used “skill” as a synonym for talent. Twenty-six percent also used “ability” as a synonym for talent.

But skill was often used interchangeably with ability and talent too, with 36 percent of people surveyed using “ability” as a synonym for talent and 19 percent using “talent” as a synonym for skill. 

However, despite the way that respondents used talent and skill interchangeably, people also said that the words convey very different meanings for them. Talent was rated as significantly more innate, natural and unchangeable than skill.

A Fixed View of Talent
The idea that talent is innate whereas skill is learned is not uncommon. People often view talent as something that a person has and not as something that can be learned or developed. For fields like sales or customer relations, this idea of innate talent can be seen as particularly important in the recruitment of new hires.

In fact, in our study, the more participants believed sales ability was a talent versus viewing it as a skill, the less they believed improvement was possible. They were also more likely to endorse quitting as an appropriate response to failure for these types of positions.  

Short-Changing Talent 

Viewing talent as innate affects how hiring managers and HR professionals assess talent in recruitment and employee development. In our study, we compared how participants allocated resources to increase the level of talent at their organization versus skill. Those who were were asked to increase the level of talent in their organization allocated roughly 5 percent fewer resources toward employee development compared to participants who were asked to increase the level of skill in their organizations.  

Talent and skill are often used synonymously. But companies who use talent to describe ability may unwittingly promote pessimistic attitudes about improvement and persistence. Additionally, using talent to describe ability may reduce the amount of resources companies allocate toward employee development.