Why you should hire for skills, not talent

Apr 11, 2019 /

By changing your focus, you can find people with a track record for tackling and overcoming challenges, says HR consultant Suzanne Lucas.

This post is part of TED’s “How to Be a Better Human” series, each of which contains a piece of helpful advice from someone in the TED community; browse through all the posts here.

“Talent” is a prized commodity in the business world. Instead of employee assessments, now there are talent assessments. Companies used to have directors of recruiting; now they have directors of talent acquisition. What do senior leaders worry about most? Talent shortages.

Well, it’s time for organizations to stop fixating on talent and to focus on skills instead, says Suzanne Lucas. As Lucas, an HR consultant and writer of the Evil HR Lady blog, explains, “When we use the word ‘talent’ to refer to employees, what we’re implying is you need to have the knowledge, skills and abilities to do the job perfectly from day one.”

Lucas arrived at this conclusion thanks to a close friend with a unique profession — she’s a professional organist. One day after a fantastic performance, Lucas gave her “what I thought was a compliment,” she recalls. “‘Liz,’ I said, ‘You are so talented.’ ‘Thanks,’ she said. ‘But I’m actually not more talented than most people; I’ve worked very, very hard to get to where I am today.’”

Her reply opened Lucas’s eyes to the role of learning, effort and practice in our professional development. Yes, there are prodigies among us: “Mozart wrote his first minuet at five,” she says. Still, many great achievements — just like her friend’s performance — are the result of hard work. “It took Lin-Manuel Miranda a full year to write a single song for his musical Hamilton,” Lucas says.

So the next time you’re filling a job, shift how you evaluate applicants. Lucas explains, “We need to not only look at ‘Does this person already know how to do something?’ but ‘Can she learn it’?”

How can you tell if someone can learn something? “Well, have they learned hard things in the past?” asks Lucas. “Do they know similar things? Do they have a history of recovering from failure? Somebody that has failed and then succeeded has demonstrated they have the grit and guts necessary” to tackle and overcome new challenges. As we face a future of great uncertainty in terms of the kinds of jobs available, the people who can learn new skills — especially those with resilience and a growth mindset — will be among the most valuable.

Screening candidates for skill rather than talent might take you more time. You’ll need to look more closely at people’s resumes and cover letters and possibly even read between the lines. But the extra effort will be worth it, says Lucas. “When we remove talent from the equation, it’s easy to see that just about anybody can learn just about anything with hard work and dedication,” she says. “When businesses are willing to invest in training and development, they’ll find that the talent shortage disappears because it never existed in the first place.”

Watch her TEDxBasel talk now: