• Stefan van Tulder


This post is part of a three part series written in a research context for one of our first clients: Nova, which has contributed significantly to Talent Data Labs and is still a tremendous source of knowledge and testing. I have happily worked with Nova in the past and can highly recommend using their services.

Organizations often ask us: “How do you know for sure, that your network has the best talent in it?”. So, for the first time in my life, I thought it would be a good idea to write a blog post about something inherently scientific. I have taken the liberty to split this question up into three pieces. In the first part we dealt with how we “know” things, the second part was about the degree of “certainty”, and this part will focus on our definition of “top talent”.


“Superstars”, “game-changers”, “ninja’s”, “the leaders of tomorrow”, “top talent”, or “Jedi’s”; everyone’s lexicon seems to have a name for it, but do we truly understand what it means to be one? In 2013 the Human Resource Management Review Journal published a meta-analysis stating that “scientists fundamentally lack consensus as to the meaning of ‘talent’ in the world of work.” To explain Nova’s conceptualisation of talent we broadly define them as the top 10% of performers within a similar group of people. But we see the need to be a little bit more specific and have developed a pretty robust model that is based on dominant science, society-held believe, and - as we explained in part I and part II of this post - accurate measurements.


Recently we surveyed our global talent database, asking if our members knew any specific talent that really stands out from the crowd and what they are like. An overwhelming 98% of respondents claimed to know at least one person that seems a little more gifted, a notch more special, or a tiny step ahead of the rest. For convenience sake (or possibly a lack of actual creativity) we have decided to label these individuals as “top talent”. According to our survey, there are countless behaviors associated with top talent. Some of the most common behaviors of top talent in our network boils down to this:

  • Ability to handle complexity, while creating value in a rapidly changing environment

  • Building of bridges by adding value to personal and professional connections

  • Skillfulness backed by substantial technical know-how and intellectual curiosity

  • Not afraid to ask for help and more importantly attract help from others

  • Cares about meaning in work and has a vision or a greater goal to work towards

  • Is easy to follow, listen to, or be inspired by

  • Shows great learning agility and adaptability

  • Drives results even in difficult times

Especially the last one is interesting and management research actually finds that most industries show a Pareto-like distribution of output, where 20% of the workforce is responsible for 80% of the output. What is even more interesting is that this top talent segment shows the highest returns on investment, meaning that putting your money in the top performers will reap the highest rewards. Other research confirms that building a top talent culture forces your bottom performers to quit or do better thus making a very good case for the war on talent.


This brings us to the hard part: identifying top talent. First of all, we want to take a slightly different position from the people claiming they can easily predict who is a top talent and who is not. Close to a century's worth of research has indeed given us tools to predict performance relatively well but most of these are incredibly lengthy, very clunky and have a very narrow focus. In today’s society, we find it very difficult to have people sit down for hours at a time and do one of these elaborate tests.

Furthermore, the dominant focus of current assessment models in education lies within memory and analysis. That system effectively inhibits some students with mostly different aptitudes such as “emotional intelligence”, “drive”, or “adaptability” to excel. Nova wants opportunities to be spread as equally as talent and prefers to look at traits that predict performance regardless of demographics and include metrics of teamwork propensity. Therefore we have decided to focus on a broader model, predicting performance as accurately as possible given the diversity within society and the time restraints imposed on us by our very short attention spans.


Broadly spoken we focus on three key aspects and support that with as much evidence as we can find. Consistent with research we find that people scoring on the higher scale of these three traits typically outperform those who do not both in team-based and individual metrics.

1. Aptitude: one’s ability to learn, discern knowledge, and apply it to different situations.

We look at aptitude from a couple of angles, primarily we use a standardized - adaptive - test that directly measures your abilities but we also back that up with how your peers look at you and how you have previously performed in similar environments. Furthermore, our reviewers closely examine - and rate - your personal achievements, independent of the context where they have been in, given the means you have at hand. We then mildly nuance that with a tendency rating towards “dark side personalities” such as your degree of neuroticism because that influences the experience of negative effects making people more reluctant to push boundaries. After all, what good is knowledge if you cannot use or share it with anyone out of fear of theft?

2. Likability: emotional intelligence, people skills, and empathy.

This element is probably the least surprising one but hardest to measure. A talent needs to be likable to fully express their potential. Primarily we focus on a personality assessment where we look at important factors such as emotional stability, self-esteem, and self-efficacy. Beyond that, we ask our network to identify the most socially intelligent people and nominate them, after which we have a structured interview with them and do a peer-validation on this trait. To avoid the misuse of nominations, people are scored on their ability to recommend someone genuinely likable. Basically, we aim to balance the network with a high diversity of different talent as this stimulates group performance. For that to work out well our talent needs to be humble, open to diversity, and learn how to support cultural differences in team dynamics.

3. Drive: effectuated ambition, grit, and motivation.

This is the driving force (no pun intended) behind true talent and allows us to separate the wheat from the chaff. As most of you know, some highly-skilled people are just really lazy and some averagely skilled people will give it their all until they reach the top. Nova, only looks for people that follow through on their commitments, persevere and overcome challenges. Angela Lee Duckworth demonstrates that “Grit is usually unrelated or inversely related to traditional measures of talent. The ability to learn is not fixed and can change with your effort.” In our selection model, we gather evidence for addictiveness to performance, the most passionate, motivated, and perseverant amongst our candidates. Don’t you love it when someone can get shamelessly geeky about their subject of interest and is not afraid to show it?

When putting this all together you can see that a top talent can potentially be anyone as long as they are curious, motivated, and empathic. Of course, we acknowledge persistent evidence stating good genes will help you perform, but that doesn’t mean that you have to go to a great school, travel the world, or build your own enterprise from scratch to be a top talent. The combination of the three attributes above creates a well-rounded individual that exerts control over excess, is resilient, and swiftly overcomes the barriers between theory and practice. Simply put, to us a top talent is someone you want to meet and hang out with, a reliable friend in need who won't give up on you and gets things done.

Finally, based on what we see in our data, a Nova member wants to support you as much as they need you to support them. In the end, we are all part of a team and being proactive about that is what makes us able to make a real and significant impact. Google and Gallup recently worked out a similar result in their research papers. Highlighting the importance of communication, empowerment, productivity, equality. and participation in managers and teams. To show you just how important our broader model is we end with a finding by Gallup who discovered that “globally spoken only 13% of employees are actively engaged”. Just being really good at something is not enough, if you want to be the best you need to be able to move those around you equally well and that takes more than just skill and motivation.

To sum it up, I would respectfully like to make a statement. In our previous posts, we have seen that mankind as a species isn't very objective and that we have provided not enough evidence to prove that the way most of us recruit today is good enough. Moreover, most opportunities are allocated disproportionately and we even have clear signs that the most important factor in finding a well-rated job for Ph.D.’s is the prestige of their institution rather than their independent achievements. This has created a tremendous burden on merit and is demonstrably unfair. So, what are you as an individual and an organization actively doing to fight the inequality caused by those prejudices? If the answer to this question is “nothing” or “very little” then you are simply not ready to face the massive population shifts and we should probably have a chat.

Visit our website to find out more about TALENT DATA LABS or reach out to us on We would happily have a chat and see if we can help you out with any of your talent strategies!




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