Wavell Room
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People and Leadership

What is Talent?

Experimental Feature: Audio Read Version

We tend to know talent when we see it in the sporting, theatre, or music worlds, but what about in those we work with every day. Sometimes we think we are talented, and then attend a course and admire those with obviously more talent than ourselves. But, is it obvious what talent is? And, what do our commanders wish to see in us to be considered talented?

Programme Castle focuses on managing talent and the need to match it to opportunity. It forms the centre of our Army Talent Framework (ATF) that will quantify both you and the appointments in the Army, so our career managers have a far more objective set of data to help manage your career. However, even with this objective data, it is often hard to specifically describe talent.

What it isn’t

Maybe it’s easier to suggest what talent isn’t. In my opinion, talent isn’t hard work. Working long hours and tirelessly doesn’t deliver better work, in some circumstances it delivers worse work; so, it’s not about time at your desk. The myth of presentism has and always will be a myth, it simply doesn’t register with the CoC, and in many cases comes across as inefficient rather than dedicated.

Talent isn’t about knowing everything there is to know about your topic either. In fact, being a deep expert is sometimes not beneficial as you may lose sight of the context and get too absorbed into your niche without the understanding the wider relationships.

Talent certainly isn’t about working your team hard to your own benefit. The aggressive delegator is easy to spot. The leader who lacks confidence to answer questions, delegates to subordinates, but then questions their judgment and changes their brief is certainly not talented. This approach is just a coping mechanism for their own shortcomings, and even though it may produce short term benefit, is not a medium or long-term solution.

What it is

So, with that in mind, maybe talent is the opposite. The truly talented work carefully, calmly and without haste, but produce concise, detailed, and readable prose; but only when they have to. Some of the most talented leaders I have worked with are superb at not writing unless it’s absolutely necessary. They can simplify the complex and communicate effortlessly face to face or in text. They also have the ability to convince people of their view by taking colleagues on a logical journey to decisions. They habitually put people at ease and use stories to illustrate their points. They are usually excellent with narrative and use of metaphor.

Talented people specifically have an understanding of the wider context. They make decisions or brief COAs knowing what the ramifications are and what else needs to be considered. Hence, they are well read and seem to have the knack of knowing what’s going on. However, don’t be fooled, it’s not a gift, it’s about studiously reading, thinking, and sifting information from multiple sources to form balanced and evidenced views.

Talented people pre-empt. They often have that gift to know what’s coming, know the views of the stakeholders and achieve change through consensus, often by sowing the seeds of compromise gently so that other stakeholders can agree.

Finally, talented people have time. They make time by delegating appropriately, knowing what is important and what is urgent, and not getting distracted by other people’s poor planning. They know when to make a decision and when not to, and the most talented do all this while remaining charming, affable and generous with their own time. Like great sportspeople, the truly talented never look rushed – they just have more time to make balanced, calm decisions.

The talented also know what’s good enough – they don’t zealously polish work to make it perfect, they know when their point is well made, but most importantly, they know what needs to be briefed in order to get a decision. They break down difficult change into smaller, more acceptable steps and make each stage an achievable and palatable change.

The most talented are undoubtedly the busiest, but you wouldn’t know it. Of course, the opposite is true; those that look like there are ‘losing it’ and have no time to engage, are probably not as talented as their appointment requires.

Developing the theme of time management, I believe that the busiest and most efficient always find time to relax, walk the dog, read outside of their work area and most importantly, support their families. If this all sounds fanciful as you don’t have time, I wonder how much of your week is mandatory and how much is discretionary; maybe it’s worth reconsidering what you prioritise and what you keep on pushing right!

Hence, Castle is following the talent debate closely. As of spring 2023 we’ll be able to support the Army in quantifying talent so that it can be managed in line with appointments with the Army Talent Framework, but that’s only half the issue. Maybe its time to reflect on how talented you are and what you do to maximise it or detract from it. Its all changeable if you recognise the issue. But, the very fact that you are reading this essay, suggests you are intellectually inquisitive, and wish to learn and develop, and that’s a real advantage. I wonder if you know genuinely how talented you are, but more importantly, how to recognise it in others and help develop it.

James Cook
James Cook

With over 20 years experience in the Army, Brigadier James Cook OBE has commanded up to unit level, held several roles in the Army’s Personnel Centre and worked in the Army’s Concepts Team.

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