Sunday, July 31, 2011

Talent - who needs it?

All my life, I have had a funny relationship with sport. I have always played it but, in truth, never very well. Despite both parents being accomplished, I never got the gene; I have always been an effortful, though essentially incapable sportsperson.

Why am I telling you this? Partly because I have been enviously watching the British Open and seeing the super-talented make it all look really easy, but also because I believe in application over talent. In some respects, I am glad that while I didn't get the sports gene, I did get the one with the code that reads "prove to them you're good enough". I say this not to boast, but to say that I did quite well on not a lot of talent.

The same goes for me with work. I am well within the normal range in most areas, but I diligently polish the tiny bit of silver I've been handed, whether it's turning myself into a passable public speaker or a writer of columns for Third Sector.

Which brings me to my subject today: talent. I hear a lot of nonsense talked about this in our sector. The consultancy firm McKinsey & Company started it with the so-called War For Talent - a paper it published way back that basically said there's only a little bit of talent about and organisations should kill to get hold of it. By talent, it meant naturally super-performing people, most of whom happen, it seems, to have overflowing self-confidence and an Oxbridge education - the people already running the show. Not folks like me - or you, probably.

I think this sort of talent is grossly over-rated in all sectors, including our own. What isn't sufficiently rated is what I will simply call the right attitude: people with a compulsion to deliver, who, by sheer effort of will, get themselves up to a performing level are, in my reckoning, worth a lot more than the naturally brilliant.

In my life as a chief executive, I've met loads of born-supersonic people who didn't do very well, either in work or life. They always sounded good - that's easy when you give off confidence - but, on cool reflection, were total non-achievers. In truth, they were lazy or wasted their gifts by not giving enough of themselves.

So would I not rather have a team of Derby winners in my organisation than a bunch of earnest nags, I hear you ask? Doesn't true success require both talent and effort?

Ideally, yes - you need both. But I haven't met many thoroughbreds who aren't also draining to manage, and who are willing to give you years of their lives before they head off for new challenges. Talent is often thinking of the next thing, not what it is doing now.

So you can keep your talent. Give me an honest scrapper or grafter; someone who knows they have to prove themself. A person who understands that it takes five years to achieve anything worth writing home about. They are nearly always the better bet as an employee or business partner. These are the people our sector needs now


ryandarren said...

Hear hear!

Edward Harkins said...

Reminds me of the sterling practical stuff that the old Industrial Society used to put out about teamwork (wasn't it 'action centered leadership' or something like that?).

Their emphasis was always on the need for a rounded team. The icon used was of 3 interlocking circles. A super-talent member could be a dysfunctional element in a working team. (The super-talent was actually mostly a super-ego in my on-the-job experience).

By the way, I don't count golf as a 'sport' - it's a game ;-)