Talent Vs. Potential – Where Do You Stand?

When you hear talent, you probably associate the term with American Idol, the Olympics, or the Oscars. Let’s talk about talent in the workplace. You know, the thing that initially got you hired.

Talent is high in demand. Manpower recently documented that 52% of American companies are struggling to fill open positions. Why? They’re looking for individuals with specific credentials and proven performance. Where do these credentials and performance factors come from? You’re probably thinking tuition dollars — but more importantly, your credentials and performance come from…..your talent. Talent is your natural, innate ability, your personal aptitude –something you just have.

Ideally, individuals consider their natural ability and interest level when choosing an occupation. For example, if you enjoy writing (which I obviously do) and believe you are decent at it, pursue a career in which you will maximize your writing abilities. That’s where talent in the workplace comes into play. Recognize your natural abilities, sharpen your skills (through education and/or experience), and contribute to your organization with the proficiencies only you can provide.

That’s truly what you as managers look for — natural talent. However, there is a perpetual battle in the workplace (primarily among trainers and managers) known as the TALENT VS. POTENTIAL battle. While talent is the natural ability to do and perform, potential refers to the possibility of doing and performing an even greater job function – but the abilities are not quite there. Potential requires training, coaching, and development. Potential refers to the future. Talent is in the present – it’s what you already bring to the table. Potential can be enticing in managers’ eyes because they may want to mold the individual and his/her talent into a different, perhaps larger role. Although potential is exciting and can generate positive performance in the future, a talented individual is one who demonstrates both high performance and high potential. Bottom line, the talent has to be in place before the potential (as in the chicken before the egg — or was it the egg before the chicken??).

So – what’s your talent? Why were you hired? Did your hiring manager recognize a spark within you – a void that couldn’t be filled by another? On the flip side– where do you see your potential? Are you looking to be recognized for something more? It’s your responsibility to contribute to your company or agency by utilizing your strengths and your talents. If you do so – you may will be rewarded for your talents, or perhaps recognized for greater potential.

Just remember, our workforce is seeking talented individuals – ones who come with those initial abilities to get the job done. Your personal abilities contribute to your company in a way that no other can. So bring forth your talent – Remember why you were hired in the first place – by demonstrating your value and your uniqueness, and ultimately, your continuous potential.

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Andrew Krzmarzick

Excellent framing of the issue, Michelle.

My question: how do you know that someone has the talent you need from a resume and a reference?

All an employer really has at the hiring phase (which often extends through the first 90 to 180 days of employment based on a learning curve tied to new duties and culture) is potential.

Right? Interested to hear your thoughts…

Michelle G. Rosenbloom

Yes, an employer can “recognize” a person’s talent by glancing at a resume – and even in an interview, but the true test comes down to performance. If an individual is truly talented in his/her role – the talent should be apparent within the performance during those initial 90-180 days of employment. Potential would be something the employer sees BASED on the initial talent demonstrated.

I think employers hire for the talent — wait and see how it plays out – and then gauge the potential based on the talent that was demonstrated in the past performance.

That’s my little ‘ole opinion anyway 😉

Stephen Peteritas

What I find hard is the transfer between talent and potential when the two aren’t related. So for instance lets say you’re great in X (talent wise) but you know you have potential in Y. X and Y are not related so how do you showcase a talent X in a way that frees you up to follow potential Y in the future.

That didn’t make a ton of sense but hopefully the community know where I’m going with that. On another note I’m really enjoying your blogs Michelle.

Corey McCarren

This is a question my track teams and I have pondered a lot. In the end, the talented sometimes put in half the effort and had twice the results as those who were less talented. However, not everything is track and field. I don’t think many people are well rounded enough to be talented at all parts of a job description. While I hope that I am a talented writer, I would make an awful scientist. I wound up blogging for a laboratory, and did a good job because I was willing to put the hours in to learn what I needed to know. I don’t think an employer needs the perfect match for a job description, just a candidate who is great at the more important aspect of a job and is willing to work hard to be good at the other. My bosses decided that it was more important to have a convincing author than a gifted scientist who isn’t a wordsmith.

Michelle G. Rosenbloom

Thank you Stephen. I’m not 100% sure I followed your generation demarcations, but I got the gist of it 🙂

Corey – I like your point about being talented in one area – but possibly not in another. The inspiration for this blog is actually the idea of linking one’s talent to an appropriate job description. What I mean is — let the talented people in X perform in X – not in Y and so forth. There’s obviously value into wearing multiple hats and being a team player, but if someone excels at what he/she does — let that person stick to what they do best. However, the only issue with this train of thought is — where does the potential fall in? Keep someone in their comfort zone (in which they excel) – or push them into unfamiliar territory – but possibly generate exceptional results. Tough call. Not sure of the answer myself….

Dannielle Blumenthal

From a personal branding perspective this is a fascinating question to me. Because usually what you think you’re good at, is very different from what managers think you’re good at. Most people have so much ego invested in what they want to be good at that they “can’t handle the truth” about the actual value they provide.

For example I always thought that my main talent was writing, followed by creativity, then by strategy, and then technical skill. But in reality the feedback I get from my supervisors, internal customers, etc. is that I am most valued as a problem-solver where no solution is known to exist. This is not a skill I would have been able to look up in a book but when I look back on my professional career, it’s exactly the area where I’ve been able to contribute the most value.

So go figure.

David Paschane

When I screen resumes at the VA, I look for grit. The signs that a person can be persistent and overcome obstacles. Second, potential. We can do amazing training for the right person. The talent that is really needed is rarely in the candidate – unless they have years of experience.

Andy Lowenthal

Great post, Michelle. I agree with Andy K that you framed the issue in a thoughtful way.

One of my concerns with public sector talent management is that we are actually afraid to hire for that optimal mix (whatever it may be) of talent and potential, and tend to go the safer route — where there’s hard proof of years of prior experience in an identical (or very similar) role somewhere else, regardless of ACTUAL performance.

We see lots of talented college grads trying to get into government, but without 3 years experience at the GS-11 (for example), we rule them out as “not qualified.” In other words, we often place a disproportionately large emphasis on narrow experience over performance potential.

Michelle G. Rosenbloom

@David, my question to you is this:

If you need to provide amazing training for individuals – does that mean they weren’t apt enough to begin with? Are you trying to train people in their field – or to perform a different job function? I would think the right people are the ones who can perform without training. — I invite you to disagree, I’m curious to hear your opinion.

Corey McCarren

Hey Michelle. I’d say yes and no to your point. If you are looking for someone to move up in the organization, it’s worth the investment and it’s important to search for high potential. However if you expect the position to not have much room for advancement, it’s preferable that they require little training. Imagine there’s a guy who can run a mile in 4:10, but probably won’t improve beyond that, and you’re looking for an Olympian. Why not find the guy who hasn’t had as much experience, but can run a mile in 4:29 and looks like he will improve drastically, and train him? There’s a greater return on investment from those who possess a higher level of potential.

Kevin Knutson, ICMA-CM

Potential can be difficult to measure when you’re hiring. I tend to look for attitudes and behaviors that indicate that a person has the capacity to continue to develop their talents. Finding out what they do when confronted by a problem, what type of strategies they employ in learning something new, or how they leverage the skills of fellow team members are some examples. I look for evidence of continuous growth and learning in their resumes. Not only formal schooling/training, but also developmental assignments, volunteer posts, or other things that show a willingness to stretch. Lastly, there are some skills–writing, coding, strategic planning, for example–that demonstrate good thinking skills, if they’ve achieved success in those areas.

Ravi V S

Potential is something that your hoping x probability. You taking a risk on something out of nothing. Potential cannot be used people development. The word potential cannot be applied for human capital. There is only talent … we need to harness that talent to be a sustainable performance. Everybody has talents and it the job of leaders to harness it.