Comment: Finding the prize

The constant concern of many multinational HR departments is talent management. But if it matters so much, how is it detected, measured and utilised?

The four key elements of talent are intelligence, personality, aptitude, and skill (IPAS). So, how many companies know what the IQ scores of their existing managers and top professionals are? There are lots of psychologists that have debunked IQ over the years, but its biggest criticism is its attempt to measure intelligence in one dimension. It has also long been known that men perform better on non-verbal tests and women on verbal tests. It is also possible to slightly brush up intelligence scores by practice and to overachieve – meaning a person performs better than their true IQ would indicate. IQ levels have also had to be recalibrated over time because successive generations become more intelligent. All these considerations are necessary when using such tests, but they do not undermine the essential value that IQ brings to the HR professional – at least as an initial filter. After all, if someone scores 100 on an IQ they possess the average level of intelligence – but, even with mankind’s evolution and improved education, a hundred IQ represents a very poor absolute level of logic and reasoning.

It is always unwise to interpret any test too literally and to call on a professional psychologist when undertaking a major review of abilities or hiring key personnel. That said, there are many psychologists who insist on overqualifying and/or mystifying results. Then there is the job applicant who refuses to undertake a required test or, knowing time constraints, ensures that their online results are lost by apparent technical error. Without a full picture of intelligence there is effectively no picture at all.

But intelligence alone does not measure talent. There are hundreds of thousands of highly intelligent individuals in academia who should not be allowed near a corporate environment. Intelligence is what philosophers call a necessary – but not sufficient – criterion for doing a particular job. As we have already pointed out, personality, aptitude and skill are also critical (and in that order). It is also true that there is considerable overlap between each IPAS factor. Yes, it all comes down eventually to skill, but for the great majority of jobs technical skills alone are not sufficient. Managerial and human relations abilities, plus a multitude of soft skills come into play – and both defining and measuring those is a formidable task. That is why a layered approach looking at all four characteristics of an individual from intelligence through to their skill set is so important. Ultimately, for instance, a person with an apparent skill set who has an unstable personality, lacks sufficient intelligence to look into the future to assess the consequences of their actions, or lacks the potential to develop should not be treated as “highly skilled” in their field – there are just too many factors that can generate failure.

Another two factors that must be kept in mind are qualities that simply cannot be measured and the phenomenon of “pure chance”. Around 60–70% of talent can be measured by IPAS and the rest is a cocktail of qualities that cannot be readily pinned down. This is where a HR professional will sometimes claim that their intuition, instinct, hunches, or plain “gut feeling” come into play, but none of these phenomena are actually that dependable. Because someone is unconscious about where an idea or feeling comes from, does not mean it has any special value. After all, the driving force for racial prejudice is often in a person’s inner, unconscious self.

Pure chance is, in many ways, the most interesting talent factor. In Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night, it was Malvolio who was told in a letter that “[S]ome are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ’em”. In real life that process of “greatness” is often thrust upon people by chance. In fact, coincidence is more common than most of us realise. A “hole in one” in golf ought to be virtually impossible, but it is not that rare. That is partly because we seldom assess the frequency or nature of our actions. Someone could, by chance, pull off a deal just by coincidentally saying the right thing to a customer at the right time. However much skill they had in reading a situation, they would not have at their disposal the information that would have allowed them to say the “right thing”. It was not a skill, nor an instinct – just luck.

Some people believe they are born lucky and may, at times, put their fortune down to fate. In fact, there is no longer any need to believe in a god-like spiritual force or even parallel universes to conceive that time itself is malleable. Einstein’s discovery of “special relativistic time dilation” has shown that we could defy measured time to move into the future. The gap achieved so far is tiny, but two Russian cosmonauts are currently living over 20 milliseconds ahead of the rest of mankind. Not nearly enough, unfortunately for them, to win the 3.30 at Kempton Park.

But if coincidence is so critical to success, the chances are that some other process is at work. These are usually actual abilities that could be – but seldom are – measured. To name just three: taking advantage of opportunities, having a natural sense of proportionality (distinguishing important things from trivial things), and, most important of all, assessing probabilities on the move. This latter ability is sometimes called “being able to take calculated risks”, but it is much more than that – involving, as it does, the process of approximating the scale and likelihood of outcomes and combining them whilst performing normal work activities. Find all three of these abilities in a candidate, close the door hurriedly behind them and make them an unrefusable offer. You have finally reached into the golden heart of talent management and found the ultimate prize.

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