Who carries the tune?

Firms are right to seek out the talented, but not to neglect the competent majority.

by Richard Reevesconsultancy, richard@intelligenceagency.co.uk
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

It is managed, nurtured, attracted and, yes, leveraged. Nothing less than a corporate war is raging over it. And small wonder: capital itself is said to 'dance' to its command. This elixir of enterprise is, of course, talent. Books, conferences and articles on the 'war for talent' and 'talent management' have proliferated in recent years. In senior HR circles the term is now used like confetti.

Much of this stuff is a new skin for some very old wine, with the core message being essentially as follows: It is Usually a Good Idea to Hire and Hold Onto People who are Good at their Jobs. (Of course, The War for Talent and Funky Business - Talent Makes Capital Dance are probably better book titles.) A small proportion of the outpouring is helpful, alerting companies to the fact that younger, highly skilled employees have much shallower roots than their elders and that basing a psychological contract on a pension is unlikely to be effective.

But the tireless focus on talent has come with a cost, too. Many companies are now realising that in their pursuit of creative geniuses they have neglected the massed ranks of the competent.

In their search for the soloist they have forgotten the orchestra.

Of course, there are people who are talented in their work, those with that unique combination of extraordinary ability and what Nelly Dimitranova (who produced the fetching picture above) calls a constant 'inner provocation' to exercise it. But the proportion of people for whom paid work is the expressive vehicle of such talent will always be small.

The majority are content to do a good job and then go home, in some cases to other activities through which their talent emerges. They don't want to be Masters of the Universe. Macho 'up or out' philosophies of management are anathema to them. They are not driven by a desire for perfection, fame or glory.

To borrow the language of parental psychology, these are 'good enough' workers. In any company, perhaps 10% are talented, 80% are 'good enough' and the other 10% are authentically hopeless.

Lifting the performance of the whole organisation requires a focus on the competent 80%. If each of these people raises their game by just a little bit, the cumulative lift is enormous - much more than is likely from special fast-track programmes and bonuses for the high-fliers Business performance is not about tickling the tummies of the talented. It is about motivating the majority.

Alex Jones, senior researcher at the Work Foundation - which is researching the diversity of worker motivation - says: 'Organisations pay so much attention to the high-flying captains that they don't pay enough to the people keeping the boat afloat. People are motivated by different factors, and unless organisations understand what motivates 90% they won't make the most of their people.'

And of course, Type A people are rarely the best at understanding what motivates the Type Bs. And yet organisations almost uniformly make the mistake of putting talented people into senior management positions. A born salesperson, an instinctively strategic thinker or a creative marketer is only rarely the best person to be managing a team.

In part, this is because talented people are selfish: they are less interested in developing the potential of others than their own. 'Egomania,' says Martin Amis, 'is the natural ingredient of talent.' And it is also because they are often socially deficient in some way or another. Talented people, as a general rule, are weirdos. This is why the popular 'balanced scorecard' approach - which measures people's abilities in the round - is so unhelpful here.

By definition, talented people tend to be unbalanced, but they are forgiven their vast array of social, professional and personal weaknesses because when it comes to the thing they are good at, they are very, very good indeed.

The media have always realised this distinction, of course, broadcast in particular - in radio and televison, the presenters are traditionally referred to as 'the talent'. Newspapers almost always have both an editor, who is a journalist, and a managing editor, who is usually not.

This is an approach that the corporate world might learn from. What happens at present is what a pessimistic management consultant might call a lose-lose situation. A talented person promoted into senior management wastes their energy on tasks for which they are completely ill-suited and becomes frustrated at what seems to them the dullness of their new subordinates.

Meanwhile, the subordinates get mightily hacked off with being 'managed' by a prima donna, who will probably be off sooner rather than later anyway.

With so much riding on the performance and motivation of the majority, their management is simply too important to be left to the talented. An ability to understand what makes each individual tick, a knack for making the whole team greater than the sum of its human parts, and an inner provocation to keep helping others to flourish - these are the attributes of a great manager.

What this means is that talent management has grasped the wrong end of the stick. True management is a talent all of its own.

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