The talent myth


Talent is only half the story, yet many firms believe talent alone will get them there

Almost twenty years ago I learned a valuable lesson from a colleague younger and less experienced than me. I was serving in a Royal Navy warship which had been activated to complete a dangerous task in a hostile environment. We were ready, but there was a problem. One of our key supervisors was struggling in his role, his leadership had been undermined by his colleagues. They did not respect him. We were considering replacing this young man but his boss argued passionately that we should keep him, mentor him. Against our instincts, we decided to keep the supervisor but build a support framework around him. The boss was right, by the time we returned to the UK, the young man was  a highly valued member of the Ship's Company. It turned out that when the chips were down, this guy rose to the challenge in a way nobody expected.

This experience changed my view of the individualistic approach to ability. In the Armed Forces, teamwork is paramount and yet people are only assessed as individuals. After I left the services, I quickly realised that teamwork is barely recognised in many industries; this leads to some serious paradoxes.

Paradox One: Teams make firms competitive but only individuals are rewarded

How many national sports teams fail to deliver on expectations? A national side is assembled from the best sports persons in the highest performing clubs; clubs with international reputations. Yet they are sometimes knocked out in the first round. Why is that? The most common reason is that these individuals do not have enough time away from their club commitments to practice together. Without the opportunity to form a cohesive team, these sides tend to fall below standard causing national outcries. Intuitively, one would expect these teams to outperform the others, assuming they are at least as great as the sum of their parts. In fact, a lack of teamwork can cause them to perform atrociously.

In business the same rules hold true. The recruitment process is set up to ensure that only the best candidates are selected. Leaving aside the suspicion that it often fails to do so, there is still a big problem with this approach. Whatever abilities the successful recruit may have, they must still deliver this through a team. Most interviews boil down to a 'does this person fit in our organisation?' question for exactly this reason. Yet, employees are appraised, promoted and paid based on individual performance. If we think of each promotion as an interview for the next higher job, it becomes apparent that the mistakes of the recruitment process are simply repeated over and over again.

Paradox Two: Teams make firms competitive but teams are rarely developed

During my time in the Navy, I was lucky enough to receive a huge amount of professional and leadership development. In my experience, the corporate world invests minimally in its people. This varies, of course, and other high reliability industries (e.g. aviation, shipping and oil) develop people to a larger extent. My individual development was supplemented by extensive collective training and assessment. Given the stakes, this is unsurprising; I am not suggesting the ratio of training to working should be the same in business. What is surprising, however, is that collective development or team training is often absent. This is where the talent myth really wreaks havoc.

Leadership and team development is often viewed with scepticism. There is a prevailing view that leadership development programmes do not deliver  Return On Investment (ROI). There are two very good reasons why this view should have so much traction. The first is the variability of development programmes. The second is that ROI evaluation has been slow to penetrate the leadership development market. For a long time practitioners and finance professionals alike felt that teamwork could not be measured. In 2015 two ROI experts, Jack and Patti Phillips joined forces with Organisational Development guru, Rebecca Ray to write a method of ROI analysis for leadership development*. Earlier than this McKinsey evaluated LD in 47 companies calculating ROI of up to 50%** Of course, ROI will vary according to wide range of factors and nobody should think 50% is likely in all cases. But there is no longer an excuse for avoiding ROI evaluation for development programmes

Paradox Three: Talent is hired and then mitigated by career development

The McKinsey report revealed that managers who performed above average across the board rarely contribute to competitive edge. What is needed is a group of exceptional managers with 'spiky profiles'. That is, they are exceptional in key areas but these sorts of people are usually compensated with below average abilities elsewhere. That is OK, because if the team is correctly constructed, weaknesses and strengths are balanced, creating a formidable, paradigm shifting team. As I have already argued, the power is the team. This is a good argument for neuro-diversity too. Yet, at career interviews and in a lot of coaching, it is the weaknesses which are singled out for focus and effort. Eventually, these talented individuals are turned into clones of each other, unable to provide that edge over competitors.

Paradox Four: 20th Century romance versus 21st Century reality

The 21st Century business environment is commonly typified as Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous (VUCA). This is directly opposed to the 20th Century image of the business leader: talented, heroic and decisive. Methodical strategizing, common in the mid-late 20th Century, simply does not work in the turbulent, highly competitive and modern environment. At the heart of this shift is data released by the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Leaders can no longer know everything. Organisations must learn collectively, pooling their computational power to induce information and deduce micro-strategies. The firm is more like an organic entity, exploring a complex and unpredictable environment. Agility is the key, authority is a hindrance. Teamwork is at the heart of this change. Talent is often categorised as specific abilities or experience and yet, as technology changes, it is not competence in a specific area but the collective ability of teams to change and learn new abilities that counts.

Combining talent and teamwork

Of course, talent will continue to drive recruitment and career development. No employer would turn away capable people. Recruitment efforts need to continue to define talent in diverse ways and avoid hiring 'people like us'. Diversity in its widest form should drive the foundations of any team. But simply buying in talent is like buying a high performance car and never servicing it. To save money on fresh oil, one runs the risk of writing off the engine. Leadership and team development are not mystical processes with dubious returns, they can now be subject to robust ROI evaluation. Collective performance and leadership is key to any business wishing to become, or enhance its learning edge, because it is less about skills, more about the ability to learn and adapt to new realities.


* Phillips, P.P., Phillips, J.J. and Ray, R., 2015. Measuring the Success of Leadership Development: A Step-by-step Guide for Measuring Impact and Calculating ROI. Association for Talent Development.

** See Article

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