‘We risk overestimating talent and underestimating learning.’ To clear her position immediately, so Amy Edmondson, Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School, began her speech at the 2016 NeuroLeadership Summit. I, among the attendees, could not hold my jubilation, because I think so, too.
Do we assume that a human being, with superpowers-given-by-others, can lead to improvements that we do not even authorise ourselves to hope? Should we base a company’s success on some of the workers’ potential instead of focusing on maximum learning for everyone? Some researches confirm that it is not so useful. One study says that in about 75% of companies, talented employees move more than 50% more value than the common ones, in addition to committing 20% more.
More than six out of ten organisations say that thanks to the ‘stars’ they have made a very modest return on investment. Admittedly, not comparable to what each company spent on them.
The talent’s topic is controversial, as the definition also tends to be. The etymology of ‘talent’ comes from the name of some ancient coins. The reference to money follows another meaning of the Indo-European linguistic root. It is related to the ability to lift a weight, to measure it thanks to a scale, to transport it in a container, to tolerate (it sounds similar to talent, doesn’t it?) a commitment.
I like the idea of coins: Humans can exchange them, they go and come. Being rich, in any sense, emerges from a relationship, a chain of causes and effects. Lewis Carroll wrote: ‘Everyone wants a magical solution for their problem, and everyone refuses to believe in magic.’ That’s why we look for magic outside of ourselves while we should look for it within us. I think we can all do what any other human being can do: just wanting to try, time to practice, determination to succeed, and an excellent reference who can teach and guide.
As far as I have seen in the companies I have worked in, as an employee and as a consultant, the singular talent often created more instability than success. We can’t avoid the complexity that always comes out when more people join that brave hero who should win all the battles. Meet Jane, already an experienced, well-blazoned consultant, hired in a company to innovate a department sunk in a swamp of procedures, and conflicts.
However, Jane’s on-boarding, anticipated by the inevitable indiscretions that had not facilitated her task, had been a disaster. All for the meandering consideration, not blatantly expressed by the management but which, like many just whispered messages, was detonating: ‘We needed someone like Jane to solve the problems created by you.’ In short, everything contributed to an announced failure, despite Jane and her success’ record.
For years in a famous multinational, Oliver was the favourite talent for his career up to the top in the Finance Department. To achieve this, he was required to spend some time in a branch abroad. Oliver had set limits to this policy: ‘I don’t want to go there because people are far behind our working standards – not even there because that colleague I can’t bear; not there because life’s style is lower than here.’
In short, with his finicky attitude, he reduced the options and the consideration of his managers and colleagues, who didn’t enjoy the same possibilities. Two stories, among others in my professional life, that represent samples to rely on if we want to understand how the talent’s days and the ones of those who have to deal with them, in any human system are worse than expected.
The definition of a system I prefer is from Donella Meadows: ‘A system is a set of things – people, cells, molecules, or whatever – interconnected in such a way that they produce their pattern of behaviour over time.’ So, any human organisation is a system. Moving something in one of the parts affects the others and the system altogether. Understanding what’s going on as an effect of this move, enhances its positive influence, and generates learning.
I could mention many other direct experiences in which the global results promised by the acquisition of talent were lower than expected. To have talent (or being so) is useless if we don’t integrate it with a constant ability to learn. Also, put the learning into practice is crucial. And what about to set aside the excitement of being considered (and openly defined) a talent? ‘Talent management’ could hide significant pitfalls if the magic-one isn’t able to play with the whole team, to learn and apply accordingly.
We are all different, and we all know this. On the other side, we don’t readily accept that others define us so, especially if it exacerbates the differences. In organisations where an extreme comparison between people is the rule, we risk creating accidental adversaries. Although not willing, a certain managerial naivety creates imbalances between members of the same team, called (probably despite themselves) to compete for a positive opinion, a professional affirmation, and an economic recognition.
Those who are not (openly defined) talented perceive diminished self-consideration. Seeing oneself attributed a rank generates consequences, both psychological and physiological. Ironically, mental and physical discomforts are experienced both in talents and in non-talents. The former often suffer some pressure (‘It’s all on me’), resulting in ambitious and stressful expectations. Furthermore, if the talented-one lacks social sensitivity, the collaboration with the most riotous colleagues could be affected (‘Let’s see what “the-one” can do’). Not to mention some obvious unfairness of personal treatments, wages, and benefits that the talented award often brings.
We frequently compare organisational life with sports. Michael Jordan and Kevin Durant, two of the best players in basketball history, who won countless titles in the NBA and not only, say the same thing, basically: everyone has talent, but hard work beats it if hard work doesn’t follow. Because the key to the systematic success of a company is not talent, it is learning.
Mario Maresca is an Executive and Systemic Team Coach, dealing with a wide range of top and middle managers in an intercultural environment.