What are Talents? (And How Do You Hire for Them?)

By Emily Lambert

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“Talents is one of those buzzwords that gets thrown around in the HR world, but if you ask anyone to define it, you won’t get the same answer twice. 

Are talents synonymous with technical skills you can develop? Or are they something you’re born with? Can you list or quantify talents, or are they simply the indefinable je ne sais quoiabout a person? Depends on who you ask.  

It doesn’t help that the word “talent” already has so many definitions in HR. It can be used to describe some core HR processes (talent acquisition and talent management), a noun that can be used to describe a group of employees or applicants (sales talent or talent pool), and now we’re using it to describe someone’s aptitude for something. Talk about confusing! 

In this article, we’ll set the record straight – we'll define talents, how they differ from hard and soft skills, and how talents are integral to a successful recruitment and hiring strategy. 

But first thing’s first, we need to get on the same page on what talents are. 

It's time for a talent revolution.

Reveal human potential to revolutionize how you hire, grow, and retain talent with Plum.


What are Talents? 

In their book First, Break All the Rules, Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman differentiate talents from skills and knowledge. “Skills” refer to the “how-to’s” of a role; whether you know how to create spreadsheets with Excel, code with Javascript, or weld. “Knowledge” refers to “what you are aware of,” and can be quantified with a degree or designation, like BA, PhD, and RN.  


Talents In other words, they’re what come naturally to you. Whereas skills and knowledge quantify past performance, talents quantify potential. Talents might include innovation, adaptability, persuasion, communication, and teamwork.  

You may have previously described these capabilities as “soft skills,” and in a way, “talent” is another term for soft skill.  

Examples of Talents

Talent Definition
Adaptation Adjusting to changes in the workplace while maintaining a positive demeanor. 
Communication Conveying ideas effectively and identifying messages others are attempting to convey. 
Conflict Resolution Bringing others together to resolve conflict and reconcile differences.
Decision-making Making high-quality decisions based on limited information.
Embracing Diversity Understanding others' perspectives and dealing effectively with different types of people.
Execution Setting goals, monitoring progress, and taking the initiative to improve your work.
Innovation Generating novel solutions and creative ideas to solve problems.
Managing Others Taking charge of a group and motivating group members toward common goals.
Persuasion Convincing others of a direction, activity, or idea, and influencing decision-making.
Teamwork Working effectively with people and cooperating with others.

The problem with the term “soft skills,” as HR thought leader Josh Bersin recently pointed out, is that it's a bit of a misnomer. In fact, both hard and soft skills are improperly named. “Hard skills are soft (they change all the time, are constantly being obsoleted, and are relatively easy to learn)," Bersin says, "And soft skills are hard (they are difficult to build, critical, and take extreme effort to obtain).” 

The word "talents” does a much better job at articulating their function than “soft skills.” Especially because typical “soft skill” traits like communication, teamwork, and adaptability are anything but soft! They’re complex, and they are in high demand – the number one skills CEOs look for is a willingness to be flexible, agile, and adaptable to change. Those are talents!

Accurately quantifying someone’s talents, therefore, is a key component to a successful talent acquisition strategy. 

Talents in Recruitment and Hiring 

Talents are 4X more accurate at predicting someone’s job performance than their skills and knowledge. Yet someone’s talents are the last things to be considered in a hiring decision, if at all. It’s not that employers don’t want to expose these characteristics before making a hiring decision, it’s that they just don’t know how. Or at least, they don’t know how to quantify talents in a way that’s accurate and doesn’t slow down the hiring process. 

And we get it, deciphering whether someone can remain positive amid change, be a collaborative team player, or execute under a tight deadline is next to impossible when reading a resume or conducting an interview! A job tryout  placing a job candidate into a role for a limited time to get an idea of how they would perform on-the-job – can do a great job at predicting whether or not someone has the talents to succeed in a role, but you also have to be realistic. It’s just not sustainable – nor efficient! – to get every single job applicant to trial a job for a week or two before making a hiring decision.  

Thankfully, there’s another way! 

Industrial/Organizational (I/O) Psychologists (who apply psychological theories and principles to organizations to improve hiring, training, and management) have spent decades understanding the make-up of talents and how to quantify them. This practice is called psychometrics – measuring knowledge, abilities, attitudes, and personality traits.  

Traditionally, the only way to access this psychometric data was to pay large consulting fees. The resulting cost and lack of scalability meant that organizations opted not to collect psychometric data, and if they did, they did so in a limited capacity.  

In the last few years, however, I/O Psychologists have developed scientifically-validated assessments that measure three critical aspects of psychometrics: personality, problem-solving, and social intelligence. 

Hundreds of research studies have conclusively demonstrated the relationships between personality and job performance. Problem-solving scores consistently predict how successful candidates are in training and making effective decisions on the job. For many jobs, socially intelligent employees represent a competitive advantage.  

Together, personality, problem-solving, and social intelligence form the foundations of talents. For instance, if an I/O Psychologist-validated assessment finds that someone is prone to persisting through ambiguity and change, operating effectively in stressful situations, and developing plans to cope with unexpected events, then that person would have the talent of adaptability. Alternatively, if the assessment found that someone displayed empathy in difficult situations, analyzed information to find the best solution, and examined issues from multiple perspectives, that person would have the talent of conflict resolution.  

Forming a strategy to measure the talents of your job candidates is more than just a “nice to have.” A talent assessment is the most predictive way to place people into roles where they thrive, save for maybe the arduous and time-consuming practice of a job tryout. And accurately quantifying talents will only become more critical in the next few years.   

IBM recently launched a study that included surveys across 5800 executives and found that approximately 120 million professionals need to be reskilled to deal with AI and new digital business environments. The study also found that the biggest gaps are not “digital skills” but behavioral skills. In other words, talents.  

45% of CHROs believe that people coming out of college have the digital skills they need, but what’s missing is skills in complex problem-solving, teamwork, and leadership. 

HR and business leaders that are intentional about quantifying the talents of their job candidates now can reap major competitive advantages in the future as the behavioral skills gap grows. Whereas skills and knowledge represent someone’s past performance, talents represent potential. With the right talent assessment in place, businesses can unlock the potential of their people and make better and more predictive hiring decisions.  

Emily Lambert portrait


Emily Lambert is the Content Marketing Specialist at Plum. Her interests include dogs, podcasts, and Oxford commas.