The Talent Myth

For years I have been coaching jobseekers to focus on their talent and not their skills and experience. Talent is the reason why some people are stars at their jobs while others are just ok… and you can’t train or teach talent. But I was reading an essay by Malcom Gladwell, when these few sentences grabbed my attention:

They were there looking for people who had the talent to think outside the box. It never occurred to them that, if everyone had to think outside the box, maybe it was the box that needed fixing.

He’s talking about Enron, Arthur Anderson, Worldcom etc… big companies that hired and financially rewarded young MBAs to become stars by pushing them to think outside of the box. And while they were doing this, the whole place fell apart.

I’m summarising Malcolm’s essay dramatically here but he made a case that creating a talented organisation is far better than relying on a plethora of talented people. In other words, an extraordinary busines can make ordinary people achieve extraordinary things. We often assume that people make organisations smart… often it’s the other way around.

So I find myself coming back to filling a niche… do one thing, and do it in ways it’s never been done before.

Southwest Airlines became one of America’s most successful airlines, not by hiring more MBAs (in fact it hires very few MBAs), but by creating a much more efficient organisation than it’s competitors had.

Gladwell points out, if you employ and reward people based on how brilliant they are, sooner or later they become more concerned with being the brightest people in the room, the elitism and arrogance that comes from this practice often sees these people trying to make all the decisions to gain glory instead of utilising the full resources and knowledgebase of the other people in the organisation. They want to appear to be stars and that’s hard to do when other people are involved in the idea-developing process.

He also points to a great study that showed students who considered themselves to be smart were more reluctant to participate in tests than students who considered themselves to be average or below. One of the reasons for this was smart kids were more concerned about protecting their image of being smart and were smart enough to know that doing more tests exposes them to more risk of failing hence they avoided unnecessary tests.

We see this in managers all the time. A bad manager will hire people less talented than himself -I see the irony here, ok- because he wants to appear to be the star. I’ve seen this so many times, usually the scenario is something like this:

A manager who is considered to be invaluable to the company goes away on holidays for a few weeks and the place runs better than before. Upon investigating situations like this, we often find that the manager was more concerned with making them appear to be invaluable than allowing their staff to get on with the job and do good work.

I’m summarising a great article and it is well worth grabbing a copy and reading through The Talent Myth by Malcolm Gladwell

Published in: on December 1, 2005 at 12:41 am Comments (0)

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