Conventional Wisdom on Talent Mgt

For most roles, conventional wisdom advises managers to select for experience, for intelligence, or for determination. Talent, if mentioned at all, is an afterthought. Conventional wisdom says:

  • Experience makes the difference.” Managers who place a special emphasis on experience pay closest attention to a candidate’s work history. They pore over each person’s resume, rating the companies who employed him and the kind of work he performed. They see his past as a window to his future.
  • Brainpower makes the difference.” These managers put their faith in raw intelligence. They say that as long as you are smart, most roles can be “figured out.” Smart people simply “figure it out” better than the rest. When selecting people, they tend to favor articulate applicants blessed with high-powered academic records.
  • Willpower makes the difference.” This is the “Success is 10 percent inspiration, 90 percent perspiration” school of thought. Managers from this school believe that the technical part of most roles can be taught, whereas the desire to achieve, to persist in the face of obstacles, cannot. When selecting people, they look for past evidence of grit.

As far as it goes, great managers would agree with all of this advice – experience can teach valuable lessons; intelligence is a boon; and willpower – which great manages actually label a talent – is almost impossible to teach. But conventional wisdom stops there. It fails to take into account that there are so many other kinds of talents and that the right talents, more than experience, more than brainpower, and more than willpower alone, are the pre-requisites for excellence in all roles – talents such as a waiter’s ability to form opinions, empathy in nurses, assertiveness in salespeople, or, in managers, the ability to individualize. Conventional wisdom assumes either that these behaviours can be trained after the person has been hired or that these characteristics are relatively unimportant to performance on the job.

Both assumptions are false. First, you cannot teach talent. You cannot teach someone to form strong opinions, to feel the emotions of others, to revel in confrontation, or to pick up on the subtle differences in how best to manage each person. You have to select for talents like these.

Second, talents like these prove to be the driving force behind an individual’s job performance. It’s not that experience, brainpower, and willpower are unimportant. It’s just that an employee’s full complement of talents – what drives her, how she thinks, how she builds relationships – is more important.

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