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The Talent Conundrum

When I ask a Human Resource Director for their top three concerns – the things that keep them up at night, the problems that seem challenging to crack – without fail, talent is right up there. The holy trinity of talent is acquisition, retention, and management. For those working in multinationals, and particularly the tech sector, the much-discussed 'war for talent' has never abated.

I recall being in one organisation where I asked about their talent programmes, and I was quickly told that they viewed everybody as talent. Is that really possible? Perhaps you could argue that if you mix the letters up, the word talent does become latent... so maybe there is a case that there are people who have latent talent, which has simply not been spotted! There could be a number of factors holding their talent back – maybe the environment is not conducive; maybe they are in the wrong job, one that focuses on their weaknesses rather than on their strengths; maybe they have the wrong manager; maybe they're working with the wrong team. It is a lovely and very attractive idea, as most of us would like to believe that we are all equal from a talent perspective. However that is definitely not how most professionals responsible for delivering the people piece (and its impact upon organisational performance) view this topic.

The boxing fraternity is an interesting area to focus on. In recent years we have seen amazing talent emerge by virtue of the much-vaunted high performance programmes the IABA operate. They say that the talent was always in Ireland, but that the process wasn't in place to develop it. But what about the talent at the top, once it has been developed – how do you retain it? Billy Walsh, the IABA head coach, is gone, successfully poached by the US. The talent has been taken. He is a prime example of what organisations call game-changing talent. He has the indefinable x-factor when it comes to creating an environment of high performance. It will be interesting to see if he can be the difference for the US team. And case in point, when asked what is the key area that American multinationals in Ireland are finding it hardest to secure, the American Chamber of Commerce clearly point to skilled leadership.

So, to start, how do companies attract the talent? In the tech world, they are connecting very early with the talent pipeline, just like the football coaches they are making the effort to spotting talent in schools, at ages much younger than you'd think. By running competitions, they get to see the truly special individuals who are demonstrating early that they have the smarts to be in demand in years to come. The BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition is a prime example of a sponsorship that has developed into a wonderful opportunity for BT, enabling them to engage with children with exceptional STEM skills and, most importantly, high levels of dedication and personal motivation. Hack-a-thons are another fun way that organisations are engaging early with talent. They set weekend challenges asking anybody to come along and work on code problems, all established in an effort to spot talent and build a relationship that will attract them as future employees.

Today, talent has choices... so what does it choose? From our research, talented individuals care passionately about the work they will be asked to do. They want to work on the latest products, using the latest technology. They want their work to make a difference. They want inspiring leadership. They hate highly political work environments. They require lots of feedback. They want all their questions answered immediately. They want to be asked their views, and they want to be included in decision-making. They want their ideas listened to, and implemented if good enough. Importantly, they want to see clear opportunities to develop their capabilities fast. They also want to work with other talented people, because they enjoy being challenged. So the conundrum that today's organisations need to solve is – is everybody special, or do I need to treat talent differently? In the best workplaces, they do both.

John Ryan is CEO of Great Place to Work® Ireland.

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