As a part of our talent acquisition engagements, we ask our clients how they define “top talent” and how they would assess those traits in the interview process. Reflecting on the insightful comments we hear every day, we thought there would be great value in a new blog in which senior executives/thought leaders share their “Take on Talent.”

This is the twenty-seventh in a series of blogs/interviews with senior executives who are thought leaders in the areas of Talent Acquisition, Career Development and Leadership who will share their perspectives on this ever present question.


Becky Schmitt leads all aspects of people management and company culture at Cognizant, one of the world’s leading professional services companies that is transforming clients’ business, operating, and technology models for the digital era. She has more than 20 years of HR leadership experience, including previous roles as Senior Vice President and Chief People Officer at Sam’s Club, and various HR leadership roles at Accenture. Becky received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and serves as a Board Member at Large for the Girls Scouts of America.


Please share with us the top five characteristics (in priority order, first to fifth) of the most talented people you have encountered during your career, and your definition of each.


  1. Empathy: Leaders are conditioned to power through challenges. We build up a Teflon exterior that we believe protects us and helps us do our jobs better. But in today’s environment – especially amidst a pandemic, social unrest, and an increasingly digital and disconnected world – it is more important than ever for us to break down those walls and connect on a human level. Leaders are at their best when they are comfortable revealing their true selves, and encourage and support others in doing the same. It creates an environment where individuals feel more welcomed and valued, leading the whole team to operate more effectively.
  2. Courageous communicator: We are all better when we say what we mean and deliver on our promises. Being transparent and real are foundational traits of successful leadership. It’s not easy – in fact, it can feel counterintuitive to the controlled communications environment that reigned supreme before social media – but honesty builds trust. Strive to explain the “why” behind decisions, eliminate corporate speak and tackle tough topics head-on.
  3. Lifelong learner (curious): Especially within the HR space, we all recognize the value of continuous learning and development. However, some of the most impressive people I’ve ever met have curiosity built into their very nature. They are hungry for new experiences, seek to know other perspectives and ensure they never become stagnant. Strong leaders always look for paths to grow in both their personal and professional lives.
  4. Collaborative: Look at corporate values across industries of all types and you’ll see collaboration in just about every one. There’s good reason for that – collaborative individuals make for stronger teams. Add inclusivity into the mix and you’ve got a recipe for business success. Leaders who can check their egos at the door and work together for the betterment of the team reap the benefits time and time again.
  5. Strategic thinker: In today’s on-demand world, it’s tempting to get sucked into meeting the next deadline, and casting out strategy in order to execute fast. Take a pause. Ground decisions in the bigger picture. Make connections. It might take longer, but the outcome will be better for all.



How do you communicate these characteristics to your HR and senior management team?

These five qualities are not only things we expect from one another as an HR team, they’re also characteristics we want our employees to demonstrate. At Cognizant, I talk a lot about keeping our say:do ratio equal. That means if we ask our people to be empathetic or collaborative, we have to be role models of and reward those behaviors publicly. If we want lifelong learners, we have to invest in the tools and give people the time that will allow them to be relentlessly curious.

These behaviors don’t always come naturally (very few of us were born courageous communicators.) So we have to create environments that foster and support them at every turn.   


How do you handle challenges to the existing culture by talent you have brought in?

Firstly, I think you should never be too arrogant about the culture you have. Of course there are certain qualities that work for your unique organization, but we also know from diversity & inclusion that differing thoughts, working styles and backgrounds bring stronger results.

I always start from a position of seeking to understand. What about the previous culture worked? How can I respect their history and the ways of working they’re most comfortable with? Talent should feel like they have a home in your organization, even if the culture is different from what they’re used to. So I listen, learn and determine how collectively we can pivot to the future.



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