Success. It's about two things: having talent or putting in the hard work and effort that will make you a success. How you view it is dependent on your own perspective… so, which camp do you fall in?

How you view it is dependent on your own perspective… so, which camp do you fall in?

This was a question I found myself asking listening to a keynote speech given by Matthew Syed at the recent Association of Business Psychologists (ABP) conference – an excellent and engaging speaker who clearly has a deep knowledge and real passion for his subject (he was also promoting his book!). As with all of these tantalisingly controversial questions, my response tends to start with "it depends…"

Clearly, there are business implications for leaders which I'll come on to because I think many organisations may start off with the best of intentions but the implementation of a 'talent' management strategy or succession plan either gets lost in translation or is poorly executed.

Let me start with a great analogy used in the session which I thought hit the nail on the head with identifying the issue of labelling high potential performers (often referred to as 'Hi-Po's'). It's a sporting analogy – at which point I normally sigh deeply, but the fact that the speaker had been a three-time Commonwealth table tennis champion and a two-time Olympian, suggested to me that he may just know what he was talking about – that actually made the point very well.

The analogy used the example of a premier division football academy that is a feeder to the likes of Chelsea or Manchester United.  The coaches at this academy felt that the young footballers were just not hungry enough ie they weren’t motivated enough to really put the effort into each practice session. What’s interesting is the psychology behind this which is: hard work becomes embarrassing for those that had already reached the dizzy heights of being accepted into this football academy; in other words, having to work hard and put the effort in would suggest that they didn’t have any talent… because if you have talent, you don’t need to put the effort in do you…

Once you get this fundamental premise, aspects of how this translates in organisational development and effectiveness terms become clear. It relates to an assertion of a fixed mindset vs a growth mindset – how motivated people are to stretch their capability, to try to do things better and to try new things.

People who are perceived to have ‘talent’ – which could be a particular skill that they excel at (and is scarce in the organisation), or they have a particular level of qualification such as a Masters or an MBA or they have proved themselves in a project or a particular role – and have been labelled as high performers, are arguably those people who won’t stretch their capabilities, try to do things better, or try new things because they feel they have already achieved their potential and have been acknowledged for it – so why would they need to try harder?

The speaker of this keynote concluded by saying that talent does exist… but it is vastly overrated. My own view is that it’s all dependent on how you define talent and high level performance because it isn’t the same in every organisation.

In practical terms, it also means that just because an organisation has put together a talent management strategy, that’s not the end of the process, it’s merely the start. Whilst this can be a really valuable exercise to identify those who have promotion potential or whose skills can be used in different parts of the business, what organisations must not lose sight of is that this is a fluid process – or it should be.

Certainly in the case of promoting individuals, the right support and development needs to be in place to ensure that both the organisation and the individual benefit from the very potential that may set them apart from others. However, when individuals get to the point of achieving the more senior position, the parameters for success change and so does the motivation. I would go so far as to say that once high potentials achieve success (however that’s defined), they lose that ‘talent’ label because they need to put in the effort and hard work to shine again.

Some will agree with this, others may not. What do you think?

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