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Clinton Wingrove

Pilat HR Solutions

Principal Consultant

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The rise of the stunningly mediocre


Sir Alf Ramsey is quoted as saying that: “The best team is not necessarily made up of the best players.”

Despite this wisdom from an acknowledged authority on succeeding at our national team-sport, there are still many flat-earth recruiters and talent managers who believe that appointing ‘the best individuals’ will always lead to success.

Many football clubs are concerned that the newly announced curbs on losses will damage their ability to acquire new talent.  But, it’s not just football clubs that must control costs and sustain talent as this parallels what most organisations face today.  
As budgets were cut, short-term survival became more important than investment in long-term success.  Many organisations curtailed recruitment and focused on retaining and making better use of their existing stars.  
But, when things pick up, those stars will move on.  With little top talent on the reserves’ bench, a premium will have to be paid to attract new stars.  
Such recycling of talent will add some short-term excitement but will also add cost and temporary disruptions – merely to end-up with the same level of talent.
The Perfect Talent Storm
Prior to the recession, most organisations beat their chests and shouted about how “our staff are our most important asset” and so on.  
However, financial instinct soon kicked in and they cut costs with short-term thinking, increased pressure on productivity, sharpened performance assessments, restricted non-essential development and demanded more for less.  “Ah, now we see what the true organisation values are!”  
As Dr Paul Marciano explains in his book, ‘Carrots and Sticks Don’t Work,’ lack of respect was shown and trust was lost.
So, in many organisations that pride themselves on having survived the recession, they lack reserve talent on the bench and have overworked their top talent (who now have a lack of trust in, and respect for, the organisation for which they work).

Top Talent Doesn’t Always Succeed
Following Mexico’s soccer defeat of Brazil in the 2012 Olympics, Rob Hughes wrote in the New York Times: “Brazil is going home to yet another inquest into how its players fell short of the only title that it has failed to win over the past half-century.  
Astonishing. This is either the beauty of sports, in which nothing should ever be taken for granted, or the failure of a true giant to apply itself in the one arena where its history is less than golden. The enduring postgame image of Wembley Stadium on Saturday was of 86,162 spectators bewildered by a final in which Mexico, with a third of the ball possession, defeated Brazil, 2-1.”  
On 6th, February 2013, something similar happened when England beat Brazil, 2-1 at Wembley.
Will Top Talent Always Excel?
As the economy recovers, many will encouraged by the YouTube video by Tony Hsieh (the CEO of Zappos), the SlideShare presentation by Reed Hastings (CEO of Netflix), and others.  They will believe that “great talent achieves great results” and be willing to pay a premium to get them.  
But, many will miss three critically important lessons:
  • Each organisation has to understand what great individual talent looks like for them.  In terms of specialist expertise, this may well be different for different roles and in different parts of the business, at different levels and at different times. Potential can be measured! Past performance may be the best predictor of future performance in a similar role.  But, it can be far from a predictor in respect of some future roles. So, definitely recruit people who are excellent at what they do but also invest in getting rid of those who underperform.
  • Each organisation has to know what it is about their culture that makes it truly great.  As Reed Hastings articulates, brilliant jerks don’t excel at Netflix.  So, don’t recruit top talent with the wrong personal values!  Recruit people who are passionate about what they do and who truly believe in themselves and in what you believe in. Without that, the trust and respect that Dr Marciano explains are so critical can never be there.
Those leading and guiding the teams make a massive difference.  Mexico winning was not the only 2012 Olympic surprise. Many top athletes won as expected but so too did many outsiders like Peter Charles who clinched Britain’s gold in the equestrian jump-off.  He was 52 year old and hadn’t even been born when Britain last won this event!
Few Olympians won gold because of a flat-earth belief that SMART goals lead to enhanced performance or that an annual review of results improves them.  
They excelled because:
  • Someone spotted they had what it takes to excel.
  • They tapped into their own passions.
  • They invested hard work in practice, practice, practice.
  • Someone made the necessary resources available to them.
  • They wanted and were open to feedback.
  • They got excellent advice, support for change, and continuous demands for improvement.
The Stunningly Mediocre Can Excel
Merely recruiting top talent can create division, inefficiencies and chaos.  Yet, well-formed, well led and well managed teams of even stunningly mediocre individuals often outperform those with individual stars.  
So, should we conclude that we need a few great leaders and a large number of stunningly mediocre people?  Of course not but we should not rely merely on recruiting stars. We need to: 
  • Recruit and spot those with excellent skills and who demonstrate values that characterise success in our organisation.
  • Enable them to tap into their personal passion. Those who don’t feel it is like work, work more effectively!
  • Demand high performance and support development and practice, practice, practice.
  • Provide the necessary resources for success.
  • Only employ those who want, and are open to, feedback.
  • Permeate the organisation with those who can provide excellent advice, support for change and make continuous demands for improvement.
The above all demand that management and leadership positions are not rewards for past success. Management and leadership are skillsets in their own right and critical to sustaining organisational values and culture and delivering sustained individual and team success. So, let’s not appoint people with the potential to fail!
Clinton Wingrove, EVP and Principal Consultant at Pilat HR Solutions
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Clinton Wingrove

Principal Consultant

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