The Holy Grail of Identifying and Developing Talent

We spend a lot of time thinking about the conundrum of talent – both identifying it, and how you best go about developing it. 

Working as we do across the business, sport and ‘relaunch’ sectors (with relaunch consisting of helping athletes as they transition out of their sport and into new careers) it is fascinating to see where the similarities are, and where the differences are.   The holy grail for all is to find a robust process by which talent can be identified, and an understanding of the interrelationship between talent and other factors that go into ultimate success. 


Identifying talent in the commercial world is not easy. Starting at the ‘entry level’, the obvious answer is to look to standardised measurements such as exam results.  For some time now though there have been concerns about how fair and accurate these can be, with some of the more forward thinking professional services firms, in particular, starting to run ‘blind’ recruitment programmes where certain information is excluded, in order to try and avoid unconscious bias.

CV’s, application letters, interviews, assessment centres – these are all other common mechanisms for identifying the right ‘talent’ for a role.  Each have their strengths and their weaknesses.

Looking at a slightly different angle, how do you go about identifying the ‘talent’ already sitting within your organisation?  Again, this is a key consideration as you want to make sure that you are focusing your training and development resources in the most efficient way possible. How can you best achieve your goals with the people you have at your disposal? One method is to use aptitude and ability tests (such as the Thomas International GIA that we use and can administer for our clients) in order to assess potential and likely response to training.  Again, however, these can’t be used in isolation, and there is so much more that goes into identifying the real talent in a business, and seeing where best to focus your development resources.  You want so much to avoid overlooking the gems in the business. 

Then, assuming talent has been identified, how do you go about best developing it?  More and more research is showing that the return on investment gained by developing someone’s strengths is greater than the return on investment by focusing on someone’s weaknesses.  It is certainly central to our belief that to move someone from good to excellent, it’s important to find what they are best at, and build on that. We encourage clients to try and ascertain the thing that is as easy as breathing for their teams, and then leverage that.  Again, we use a Thomas International assessment to help with this – the PPA – which is an invaluable tool to help in this process.

A proper programme of skills training can then help to leverage and develop those strengths, and of course plug weaknesses where necessary. 

What can make a huge difference on top of this though?  A focus on the culture and environment of the organisation as a whole, and a drive towards high performance.  We have blogged on this before, the need to aim for excellence rather than just good enough. We are finding more and more that organisations are interested in learning about what it takes to have a high performing attitude and mindset.  Concepts such as growth mindset, persistence, framing, purposeful practice, are ones that we are finding are increasingly popular in our workshops. 


These issues are even more key in the world of professional sport, where winning can be everything.  Success in a particular sport can, at a very generic level, be broken down into two main areas:

  • Talent (how you identify it and how you develop it); and

  • Attitude (the approach, attitude and mindset of the athlete towards their sport)

At a basic level, the right fit is key to identifying talent.  This means not only that you love the sport, but importantly, as Chris Hoy once said, that the sport loves you. Think of the rowing talent ID days where women over 5’10” are invited along.  Note how the typical NBA centre now stands in the 7” range.  How big are Ian Thorpe’s feet………….size 17!

Of course there is more to it than just the right fit; there has been a whole host of research carried out in recent years into identifying talent. Areas looked at have included physical attributes; family background (including birthdate, birth order, birthplace, genetics and so on); and even the impact of trauma in an athlete’s youth.  

What you then do with that talent is key. Again, research has looked into all sorts of issues such as: early specialisation versus early sampling and play (linked in with the often misquoted 10,000 hour ‘rule’); competition history; ‘fit’ with coaches; the competitive environment and so on. 

Again, there is a strong bias in sport towards working on and leveraging one’s strengths. We have always loved the story of Daley Thompson. Thompson, determined to win a second gold medal in the 1984 LA Olympics, and chased hard by Jurgen Hingsen, knew that there was only one event, the 1500, that he was vulnerable in. So he went to see a world-renowned coach, and asked him about improving his performance in this weak event. The coach thought about this offer and told him that he wasn’t prepared to help him improve at the 1500m. What he would do was help Thompson become so strong in the other 9 events that the 1500 would become irrelevant. The strategy paid off. In LA Thompson entered the final event, the 1500, knowing that as long as he finished, he had already won gold.

But no matter how much talent can be identified and nurtured, if the right attitude and mindset isn’t there, success will always be harder to come by. What would you rather (and this is a constant question within the world of sport)? A talented individual who does not exhibit the right attitude? Or a less talented individual who exhibits all the right mindsets? Who will have the most success in the end?

A recent UK Sport research project (The Great British Medallists Study) concluded that three key factors appeared to have been important contributors to success in what they called their Super-Elite and Elite categories:

  • Being brought up in families where there was a ‘culture’ of striving;

  • Demonstrating high levels of conscientiousness; and

  • Demonstrating a very high level of commitment to training.

What else might be key? Sports such as football and rugby advocate more and more areas such as resilience, and a ‘growth’ mindset whereby you see failure not as a bad thing, but as an opportunity to continue to learn and develop, and you embrace challenges. 


Athletes have many transferable skills. These include determination, persistence, resilience, an ability to take feedback and work on it, being goal-orientated, and an ability to work as part of a team.  Professional athletes have a proven track record of success.

However, how to leverage that talent in their next career?  Those same traits that are of real value can lead to them to launch themselves with passion, dedication and determination, into something for which they are not ideally suited.  What a waste! There are so many issues for athletes to contend with when they leave their sport (distilled down by some experts to a six stage process similar to the bereavement process) that working out what their next career should be can be extremely hard.  Once again, our approach is to help athletes focus on what their strengths are, and then help them leverage those accordingly. We use the Thomas International PPA to facilitate the process of thinking about what sort of roles and environments would be most suitable, and what sort of skill acquisition should be focused on in order to really build on the individual’s strengths.  When this is done right, and mixed in with other key issues such as passions, interests and background, and the athlete launches down the right path, it is brilliant to see them achieving similar levels of success in their next career. 


So no Holy Grail…..yet! But hopefully this blog will generate some thought and debate in this ever-fascinating area. 

Catherine BAKERComment