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What is talent?

There was a time when ‘talent’ wasn’t just a synonym for your employees’ collective skills, abilities, knowledge, aptitude, competence, and creativity. ‘Talent’ was originally a Mesopotamian unit of measurement for rare or valuable substances such as gold or silver, or later of currency. If we consider the origins of the word and refocus our attention on talent as a manifestation of ‘fundamental value’, we create the opportunity to unlock our organisation’s potential to thrive.

The shift from industrial- to knowledge-based economies highlighted the importance of leveraging human capital (talent) to drive organisational success. Until the late 1990s, using the term talent was not commonplace in a workplace environment. After all, those were the days of Human Resources or Personnel Departments. By the time published almost 25 years ago, the concept of a ‘talent mindset’ was entrenched in corporate ideology and parlance. The realisation had dawned (in the USA at the time) that between an aging society and labour market trends showing weakening loyalties between employers and employees, being able to attract and retain talent would be a critical source of competitive advantage and organisational success for businesses in the future. Whilst the understanding of exactly what talent is has evolved since then, it remains true that great people – great talent – must be sought out and nurtured.

Talent is more than skill and ability, especially in a globalised and knowledge-driven economy. Talent is multifaceted and contextually shaped. The concept of talent includes technical and functional job-specific skills, soft skills, subject matter expertise, creativity and innovation, and leadership and management skills. All these elements point to a capacity for achievement or success. War for Talent led us to talent management, and ultimately to the concept of a talent philosophy.

What value can a talent philosophy bring to your business?

A Talent Philosophy provides the foundation for talent management success. It aligns your executive team around a common vision and clarifies for your employees how to succeed in your organisation. It provides a “true north” around which to design your HR practices and a language and structure that allows you to communicate values around talent more easily.

How is a talent philosophy different from a talent strategy?

A talent philosophy reveals a company’s fundamental beliefs and values around talent, a business’s most valuable asset. It reflects the foundations of an organisation’s thinking around talent, acknowledging the principles that will inform talent-related decision-making. It forms the seed of that organisation’s people culture and how that organisation ‘shows up’ in the world through the people that give it life. A talent philosophy establishes your approach to acquiring talent for your business and how to lead and manage talent already in the business. It ensures that the talent-related values intrinsic to your business are embedded in each individual and aligned across

A talent strategy, on the other hand, is a practical plan for talent management that aligns with organisational goals and defines actionable and measurable initiatives to achieve specific talent objectives. At a strategic level, a talent strategy ensures that the talent you hire today will also be the talent you need to get you to tomorrow, acknowledging that your organisational goals will be achieved through the people you choose to include in your ecosystem.

Why is a talent philosophy worth the time?

Talent is a business’s human capital. Like financial capital, talent unlocks value in an organisation, yet there is no easy way to define and measure the impact value of talent equity. A talent philosophy sets the tone for how an organisation intends to – and does – view its talent. It guides performance and behaviour and informs the allocation of resources and rewards, all while driving transparency and accountability. A well-wrought talent philosophy has the potential to transform corporate culture.

Just as people in a product development team do not develop products based purely on their personal preferences, talent management approaches should not be defined only by personal values and attitudes. A talent philosophy will shine a light on what are often only implied talent ‘values’, for example, levels of transparency around opportunities to advance in an organisation, alignment between leadership on how to assess levels of performance, and moving beyond mere talent-oriented platitudes such as “we value our employees”.

How does a Talent Philosophy relate to talent management?

A talent philosophy lies at the foundation of successful talent management. Talent philosophies must be intentional, considered, supported, and transparent because the assumptions we make about what talent management actually is infiltrate our subsequent talent-related choices and actions.

The tension between the perception of what talent is and the resulting approach to talent management ultimately informs your talent philosophy. A talent philosophy underpins a business’ talent management principles and sets the tone for bridging the gaps between the need for skills and resources, commercial aspirations, and organisational strategy.

“The foundation of successful talent management doesn’t lie with your strategy, practices or technology. It’s created when your executive team agrees on how to best manage talent to achieve your business strategy.”

– Marc Effron

In her 2022 publication What’s Your Talent Philosophy?, Nicky Dries noted, “Before we could begin to understand under which exact conditions talent management ‘works’ versus ‘fails’, we needed to first agree as to what talent management ‘is’ exactly.” Her useful framing of talent-related challenges connects talent theory and empirical data to show that diverse understandings of talent map onto different talent philosophies and from there onto talent management practices – do you focus, for example, on a person’s potential or their demonstrable strength, and are you inclusive or exclusive when hiring? In short, ‘talent’ is a construct, ‘talent management’ is a phenomenon, and where the two intersect is where your talent philosophy is born. Once these are clear, you can finally assess whether your talent management strategy is on track for success.

Identify your Talent Philosophy to drive your Talent Strategy

Talent is a construct, Talent Management is a phenomenon, and the tension between the two guides.

How do you build a talent philosophy mindset in your business?

Defining your talent philosophy means understanding how the decision-makers in your business think about talent. How they think about talent may change depending on the size, ownership structure, and location of the business. An HR manager may face the additional challenge of being influenced by their own perception of what the business is hoping to achieve through talent.

Recruiting metrics are a comparatively simple matter – staff turnover rates, cost to hire, retention figures, and so on. These numbers are direct and immediately tangible. A person working in a business in a revenue-generating role is similarly ‘easy’ to value in terms of their financial contribution to that business. A talent philosophy, however, adds value by informing how one should think about valuing the contribution of a front-of-house staff member who puts frustrated clients at ease, setting dealmakers up for a slightly easier’ sell’, or the reach of the warehouse specialist who first initiates positive operational transformation.

Your talent philosophy will ultimately set a solid foundation for your talent architecture, the talent ecosystem covering talent strategy, management, and evolution, and ensure that your business’ strategic priorities are set for success.

To define your talent philosophy, you must define what you are trying to accomplish and what you must do to get there. Engage leadership to establish what talent gaps exist and how they might be filled. This goes beyond the mere need to fill a role, asking, ‘What do you truly need from your talent?’ and ‘What do you need more of or less of?’.

  1. Get senior team input and consensus: In an executive team meeting, present data to facilitate a discussion to gain broad agreement on each Talent Philosophy area. It’s not critical to have perfect alignment, but each executive must agree to manage their domain in a manner consistent with the broader executive team’s decisions.
  2. Conduct a reality check: apply the identified principles to scenarios around a few real employees and test the leadership team’s reactions to the envisaged consequences.
  3. Build HR processes and communicate these to the wider team: talent reviews, as well as performance management, development, and compensation processes, will all likely require adjustments to support the new philosophy consistently.
  4. Transparently and repeatedly communicate the new guidelines to the entire organisation. Managers need to understand how to manage talent and the consequences of doing it well or poorly. Employees need to know the talent benchmarks for succeeding in the business.

We should manage talent with as much rigour and discipline as we manage products and services. A Talent Philosophy will ensure that your company has a rigorous approach to making talent decisions and that your employees feel that decisions that affect their careers are being made fairly and unbiasedly.

A well-crafted Talent Philosophy has a far-reaching impact. It can ultimately increase productivity, reduce turnover, and improve employee engagement and accountability. With employee costs representing up to 50% or more of a company’s revenue, it seems shortsighted not to manage this investment as rigorously as any other. If clear, consistently applied guidelines support quality decision-making in other parts of the business, they can also add value to talent management decisions.


  • The War for Talent, (c) 2001 McKinsey & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. (Published by Harvard Business School Press.)
  • Talent Management: A Decade of Developments (2022), Ed. David Collings, Vlad Vaiman and Hugh Scullion, Ch 2: What’s Your Talent Philosophy? Talent as Construct Versus Talent as Phenomenon. Dries, Nicky  (Open Access)
  • Meyers, M.C. et al. (2019) ‘HR managers’ talent philosophies: Prevalence and relationships with perceived talent management practices’, The International Journal of Human Resource Management, 31(4), pp. 562–588. doi:10.1080/09585192.2019.1579747.
  • Effron, Marc (2020, September 14). What’s your Talent Philosophy? The Talent Strategy Group. Retrieved August 28, 2023, from