Three Traits of Top Talent

According to Forbes, businesses around the world spend over $3,300 per hire on recruiting, an increase of almost 6% in the last year. US corporations spend nearly $72 billion annually on recruiting services, staff, and products – and the worldwide number is likely three times bigger.

Corporate training spend is close behind.  According to Bersin by Deloitte, businesses spend more than $60 billion on training in the US alone with the global estimate at  around $135 billion.  In fact, US training organizations increased spending last year by 12% (the highest growth rate in 8 years).

The war for talent is heating up.  We’re collectively searching for top talent – those that can work in ambiguity and forge clarity, that have the technical skills and the strategic mindset, that can think globally and execute with urgency.

Where do we find these elusive beings?  What traits set apart the top talent?

Here are the three things I look for.

Positive Energy

You know these people the moment they walk in the door.  Despite how busy they are, and top talent is always busy, they have a smile and a “we can do this” attitude.  Even if they are quiet or reserved, the energy they bring is positive.  I’ve managed a variety of wonderful people over my career and have appreciated aspects of all of them.  However, the best have the ability to lift my spirits by just being present.  They accomplish more because they are better influencers and draw people to them.  I’ve also had experience with the opposite – the type of person who sucks the energy out of a room.  Their quiet is not one of reflection but of negativity, cynicism or defeat.

It doesn’t mean that these positive individuals are always optimistic or, even to an extreme, “pollyanna-ish”.  Sometimes they are the realists we all need to have on our teams.  The distinction is that they don’t stop at “can’t do it” but think about what can be done.  And then they go do it.

“Constant whitewater” is how my prior head of HR described our future.  Who would you rather have on the boat?

Doers not talkers

Some people are born with silver tongues.  They are smart, articulate and can think through the angle of every issue.  They love brainstorm meetings and strategy discussions yet wait, silently, when assignments are assigned or volunteered for.

The talkers are of limited benefit if they do not also do.  You know them because they’re often the ones that everyone remembers being part of the meetings but no one can articulate what they actually did.  During performance reviews, talkers get defensive when given this feedback as they say that their value comes from consulting or advising.  These are good traits, but more is needed.

Doers can talk, they can think and they can solve.  They bring experience, technical knowledge and battle scars.  They are the ones that stand up and volunteer for more.

Not every doer is a top talent by this trait alone.  They bring good instinct or judgement and work well with others.

But when there’s too much to do, and there always is, the people that stand apart are the ones that actually get something done.

High Emotional Intelligence

Well, if that’s not an HR phrase, I don’t know what is.  Except, that every article I read, and every admired leader in my own organization, believes that high emotional intelligence is a critical quality in their stars, whether they use the phrase or not.

We don’t live in a vacuum, though sometimes the thought is comforting when the phone rings for the 10th time or another “bing” announcing a new email rings forth.

It is the nature of what companies do – of what societies do.  We work with and through other people.

Those with high emotional intelligence can read others, learn what motivates others and finds a way to relate to others.

We all have experience with the person who does not have these qualities.  Superficially, they may not pass the “layover” test.  That’s the test used when assessing if someone is a person you could stand being stuck in an airport with for hours on end.

But it goes deeper than that.  Someone with low emotional intelligence is almost literally blind.  They cannot see when a client has tuned out, or when a colleague is resistant or when an employee is near mutiny.  In the cases where they do see it, they either don’t have the skills to manage the conflict or they see the conflict as a reflection of their own “toughness” or candor.

Whether you’re a process analyst, an eLearning developer or sales manager you’re going to have to work with other people.  Developing a vision, then strategy, then tactics and then execute has the potential for potholes along the entire journey.  Having high EI can be the difference between a slight bump under your tire or a complete derailing.

An HR leader I worked closely with in India, Mohit Bhatia, once told me – “Give me someone with motivation and I can help them achieve anything”.

Technical expertise is great.  In fact, companies screen all candidates through that lens by reviewing resumes first.  It’s the basis of performance reviews and promotions.

It’s convenient but outdated.  We’ve outsourced information retention to the hive brain known as the Internet.  I still want my brain surgeon to be technically expert as I do my cab driver.  However, most of us work in relationship industries and how you work is more indicative of success than what you know.

The top talent I’ve worked with as a manager, colleague or employee have lots of diverse traits, including experience and expertise.  But the thing they all had in common is that they were in possession of all three of these traits.

What are you looking for in your top talent?

5 thoughts on “Three Traits of Top Talent

  1. Talking of traits and using a Cricket analogy: “Choice of Stroke” – one may have all the strokes in the book and play each of them perfectly too, however, Top Talent will play the right stroke based on each ball he receives. This is similar to what Sonia refers to “doers and not talkers”. Reliability and Dependability comes along with this. Since in the future one will need to deal with Contradiction, Complexity and Ambiguity, it is necessary to have sustainable people on the team and avoid someone fly-by-night. Another trait is to be “Tough” – remember, Tough times never last but Tough people do !
    A good leader always is on the look out for top talent. Two quick things: constantly keep sourcing and hiring talent for positions which maybe, do not exist yet; When hiring for your own function, do hire someone better than yourself. And since top talent is scarce, your ability to spot someone bright becomes important.

  2. I’ve never pictured someone with low emotional intelligence as being blind. It’s kind of humorous. I picture a blindfolded child swinging a bat at a pinata and accidentally smacking a sibling in the face.

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