Building a talent-first organization begins with addressing these 3 biases

According to the book Talent Wins, talent-first organizations drive outsized value by making talent an integral part of strategic decisions.

Based on our client work, the journey to being “talent-first” must start with a candid discussion about the “meaning of talent” for the organization. During these discussions, we often see a lack of clarity and hidden biases in how organizations operationalize talent that is at odds with how the business drives value. More specifically, we’ve identified three common talent biases that need to be addressed for organizations to be talent-first.

The “talent of the top few” bias

Across most organizations there is a tendency to focus on the top of the talent hierarchy. This focus, however, overlooks roles that are critical for driving the strategic agenda, but may not sit within the top few levels of the organization.

In contrast, McKinsey has adopted a methodology for linking talent to value, whereby organizations disaggregate the value agenda into actual dollars to identify the top value creator and enabler positions (about 2% of roles). Also, to complement the shift to critical roles, organizations should identify critical pools of talent deeper in the organization, with skillsets that are fundamental to the business—now or in the future.

The “I know it when I see it” bias

After identifying the critical roles, you must answer the who question – who will be put into these roles and how will they be identified.

Despite advancements in talent assessments and methods, there remains a surprising adherence to the use of “gut feel” approaches. Take the unstructured interview; decades of research has shown it is not a strong predictor of job success, yet it remains one of the most common assessments.

What is needed is a structured, data-based approach that begins with a discovery of the job requirements that drive success, in the form of knowledge, skills, attributes and experiences (KSAEs). Only after the identification of role requirements should assessments be selected with a focus on using a set of well-established tools.

At a North American industrial client, the benefit of clearly-defined role requirements were realized during the assessment of incumbents for value-critical roles (derived thru our talent to value approach). Robust role profiles were first created that defined the required KSAEs and means of assessment. Anchoring talent discussions on KSAEs moved the discussion away from comments like, “She’s a natural successor” to “How do we confirm she has the required experience to succeed?”

The “one size fits all” bias

While identification of critical roles and people are foundational, the situation is complicated by the ongoing impact of digitization, automation and AI for large scale job changes. McKinsey’s Global Institute estimates that for as much as 60 percent of occupations, at least one-third of the activities could be automated by 2030. The implication being a massive, ongoing modification of jobs and role requirements across nearly all occupations.

In the past, identifying abundant talent that possessed all job requirements was generally a viable strategy. In today’s dynamic environments, the reality is that many roles will lack the necessary talent supply. Organizations will need a creative talent strategy that utilizes a variety of internal and external talent sources.

A financial services client realized the benefit of expanding their sources of talent by creating an internal platform to generate individual skill profiles for each employee. Advanced analytics were then used to match each employee to a variety of potential opportunities. The organization was therefore able to effectively leverage internal talent pools taking advantage of unique strengths of all employees while also offering a range of career choices to employees.

As we look at an uncertain future, one thing that is certain is that driving value through talent will remain mission critical. The path to becoming a talent-first organization that is future proof is certainly not easy, but by conquering these three talent biases you will be well on your way.


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