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The football world did a double take. David Beckham, the UK’s most high profile footballer announced in 2007 he was joining the little known US Los Angeles Galaxy team.   

Two years later the verdict is that while he has successfully sold jerseys and served as celebrity eye candy the soccer story has been an epic disaster. Nor is Beckham alone in being a star who failed on moving to a new work environment. 

In business, and especially Financial Services, there are countless stories of top performing teams coming a cropper after moving from one working place to another. 

The idea of creating a team of top performers has been with us a long time. It is the dream of many a sports coach. CEO’s in research studies confirm they ponder a great deal about talent and are prepared to pay dearly for it. 

The trouble is, while it can be good to have some outstanding performers, teams consisting mainly of stars are usually a disaster. As Belbin has shown in his much quoted study of top managerial teams, you need a balance of people if the team is to thrive and perform well. 

In our most recent study of talent, published last week: Talent Engagement, how to unlock people’s potential, we early on comment: “We find it incongruous that some otherwise astute organisations choose to run an elitist system, in which they treat only their high potentials as “the talent”—the stars of the show.” 

The whole issue of inclusiveness versus focus on a few highly prized talented people on whom to lavish scarce resources has become a critical issue for many companies faced with pressure on overheads and the need to economise. What better than adopting a ruthless attack on so-called low performers? 

The famous “rank or yank” pioneered by the international consultancy Mckinsey along with its invention of the War for Talent has unfortunately had far more influence than the facts warrant. 

If you have any doubts about what can happen by having an obsession with talent at the expense of so-called lesser talent, spend a while reading the Enron story. 

Here was a company that turned the urge for stellar performers into an entire culture. Streams of advanced-degree recipients from top schools were brought through annually to feed "the talent mind-set," 

The tales are legion as to what this commitment to talent meant in practical terms, with people spending millions on risky ventures that looked good on paper but which in reality were fatally flawed. 

The most thorough demolition job on The Talent War and the excessive focus on a few talented people was done by the ever readable Malcolm Gladwell: 

“The management of Enron, in other words, did exactly what the consultants at McKinsey said that companies ought to do in order to succeed in the modern economy. It hired and rewarded the very best and the very brightest—and it is now in bankruptcy. The reasons for its collapse are complex, needless to say. But what if Enron failed not in spite of its talent mind-set but because of it? What if smart people are overrated?” [1] 

Gladwells’ prescient piece from 2002 stands up well today as we see companies continuing to cling to the talent myth and to overrate the benefits of filling the place with so-called smart people. 

The arts, especially films and theatre are full of handy evidence about what can happen when you put too much faith in the stars. Forbes calculated stars’ estimated earnings against the performance of their films to devise a list of poor earners taking into account box office performance, DVD and TV rights sales. 

For example, Hollywood star Will Ferrell has topped a list of luminaries whose returns offer the least value for money. According to Forbes’ list, the movie funnyman made just $3.29 (£1.97) for every dollar he was paid after a run of box office disappointments. Ewan McGregor finished second, followed by Billy Bob Thornton, Eddie Murphy and rapper turned actor Ice Cube.  

What does this all tell us about inclusive versus exclusive talent? First companies that rely on picking top talent and developing it at the expense of the rest may find they pay a high price in terms of eventual bottom line performance. 

Secondly, while all companies can benefit from talented people, it is their ability to work within an ensemble that probably makes more difference than their singular star quality. 

Thirdly, you are more likely to get a better financial and business return from an inclusive approach in which talent is seen to reside everywhere. You simply need a good system and solid business model that unlocks it.  

The latter is not just about having the boring disciplines in place, it is also about having the ability even within these constraints of inspiring everyone to perform at their best.   

Knowing how to do that is what the essence of Talent Engagement is about and equally important, identifying highly practical ways to do this now.[2]

[1] The Talent Myth: Are smart people overrated? The New Yorker by Malcolm Gladwell posted on 16 July 2002 and in his new book What the Dog Saw, 2009

[2] Do It Now Cards, 52 ways to really engage talent by Maynard Leigh Associates.

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