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Blaire Palmer

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Success in a recession: Is talent really that important?


Research shows that it is determination and knowing what to do with the talent you have which really count. So Blaire Palmer asks, should we be placing ‘talent’ further down the list of priorities?

Most of us are in the business of developing talent. And yet, how much do we really know about what talent is? What does it mean to have talent? Is talent innate? And is talent enough?
We will all have experienced a skill that came naturally to us. Maybe you found you had a natural ability for a particular sport or other activity. Maybe you are musical or find it easy to learn another language. Maybe there are aspects of your work – coaching, training, recruiting – which you took to quickly. At the same time there will be skills you find harder. Maybe maths has always been a struggle. Maybe you lack a sense of rhythm or can only draw stick-people.
It is safe to say that a propensity to be good at something or to find something hard is innate. Some believe that this propensity is inherited – many people can find similar traits in their own family. Some believe that early exposure is important – if you start learning the piano aged four and all your family play, you get a headstart and learn a skill when you are still absorbing knowledge like a sponge. An early bad experience can be as powerful but in a negative way, putting you off for life unless you are exposed later on to a more powerful positive experience.
But research carried out by Karl Anders Ericsson et al in ‘The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance’ (Cambridge University Press, 2006) concludes that innate talent or early exposure is never enough. What makes the difference in terms of real mastery is practice. Their work showed that it takes at least a decade of deliberate practice – practice that focuses on tasks beyond your current level of competence and comfort – in order to develop expertise.

Real skill

This should be reassuring to those of us who are in the people development business. It isn’t surprising that managers transitioning to leadership roles, for instance, struggle to shift from a hands-on, detailed, action-orientated style to a more visionary, strategic, creative style. Even with rigorous practice, we can only expect to see real skill after 10 years.
In addition, the skills that many of us work hard to develop early on in our careers are primarily technical. Just at the point that we are starting to achieve a real knack for the job itself, we are expected to master a very different set of skills – communication, politics, influencing, leading.
In fact, the very talents which may have brought us to the attention of those compiling the succession plan may be the talents which hold us back from succeeding in the higher echelons of a business.
One reason for this is that those who have a natural propensity for a skill may never have devoted time to deliberate practice. Their innate talent with numbers or with sales or with writing might have been sufficient for many years without the need to invest time and energy honing and upgrading it. When they are faced with a new challenge – a promotion which exposes them to a set of new experiences – they simply may not have the tools to face these challenges and develop mastery.

The ability to learn

In addition, they may find it hard to let go of the ‘day job’, having invested so much time becoming skilled at it. As they move up the organisation it will be hard for them to watch those who succeed them make mistakes, so they get drawn back to their first love whatever that may be. Their addiction to their old role may be a way to avoid the discomfort of learning something new.
A quality which may be even more important than talent is the ability to learn. This, of course, is a talent in itself. And just like any talent, it requires practice to become effective. The more opportunity staff get to learn from the moment they join the industry to the moment they leave it, the more practice they will get at learning itself.
It may be just as valuable for employees to learn a language, learn an art form or learn a skill unrelated to their work (basket-weaving for bankers) as to learn a job-specific skill. The very act of learning helps the employee experience the stages of unconscious-incompetence, conscious-incompetence, conscious-competence and unconscious-competence. They can apply this every time they are exposed to new situations.
Another reason that learning may be difficult for some individuals is that the culture may reinforce unhelpful beliefs about learning. Bad habits form far more quickly than mastery. A new leader may be keen to learn for the first year or two but soon fall in to bad habits which have a short-term payoff but a longer term cost.
For instance, a leader may find that a very directive style reaps early rewards and that his team’s results improve quickly. He is acknowledged for this achievement by his bosses and believes that this is the recipe for success. He is discouraged from experimentation, new approaches and taking risks which might damage these early results. Within a year or two a directive style has become his habit, although now results are starting to suffer as team members become disengaged and demotivated by his relentlessly directive style.
The company culture colludes with the leader’s own belief that mastery can be fast-tracked. In fact, habits can be learnt quickly but skill takes, as we have seen, many years. We need those at the top of the organisation to understand that learners will make many mistakes and should be encouraged to take risks as part of their deliberate practice, and that this phase may last throughout the leader’s career.   
Unless they do so, we may find plenty of talent but very little expertise.  

Previous articles in the ‘Success in a recession’ series:

Blaire Palmer is an executive coach and author. Her new book, ‘The Recipe for Success – What Successful People Do and How You Can Do It Too’, is out now (publ A&C Black) and available from good bookshops and For more information on her work visit her website at or her blog at

One Response

  1. Thanks

    Love the article, and the headline points @ the top are brilliant. As a seasoned mistake maker, I thank you very much.



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