Can we avoid wasting talent?

A couple of months ago, I attended the HR Directors Business Summit in Birmingham. I was representing my employer, BPP, and gave a presentation setting out the philosophy underlying our part-time programmes. While there, I had the opportunity to attend some of the keynotes and workshops. As is usual at these events, they were mixed in quality but two in particular have stuck in my head ever since. Although very different in style, they dealt with a very similar theme.

One was from Rasmus Ankerson, who was by some distance the most polished and engaging speaker we saw. Mr Ankerson is now a writer, consultant and entrepreneur, but has a background in sports coaching. He described his experience as a young football coach in a small team that struggled to attract talent. In desperation, they recruited a no-hope teenager called Simon Kjaer. Not one of the experienced coaches at the club thought he would have a future in the sport. Kjaer now plays international football for Denmark and the club’s top player at the time, tipped for success, runs a pizza restaurant.

This is not an isolated example. Many organisations face the “Simon Kjaer problem”, as he put it – how do you identify your talent given that it is far from obvious. This relates to a brilliant graphic that has been reproduced countless times and apparently originates from comedian Demetri Martin:

What success looks like

The truth of this has graphic been borne out by research (including Mr Ankerson’s) – most successful people either do not have a career plan or do not stick to it. They have their ups and downs, changes and dead ends. Blind luck and serendipity play a role greater than is often acknowledged. And yet this is rarely acknowledged or acted upon – schools, coaches and employers persist in seeing successful careers as a smooth ascent, whereby somebody performing well at one level is ready to move on the next one. The converse is also found – at a previous employer of mine, the bottom 10% of performers at any one time were at risk of being “let go”. These approaches take no account of the non-linear nature of successful careers and in the process lose a lot of talent. For some ideas on better ways to identify real talent, Mr Ankerson’s website is a good place to start (hint: you need to take into account someone’s prior opportunities in assessing their performance and attitude is critical).

The other talk, which was very different in style, gave a very similar message. A team from SHL Talent Measurement presented their research which showed poor returns on high-potential programmes run by companies. The key problem is that managers assume their high performing staff are also high potential when, according to SHL’s research, only 15% of them actually are. SHL have their own model of how to identify high potential, which includes things like taking risks, assuming responsibility and being interested in your own development, which can be more important than the standard to which you are currently performing.

The overall point is very clear. We all tend to be dazzled by someone’s achievements and assume that someone who has already achieved will go on to achieve even more. Conversely, someone who is underperforming can be written off. But this is lazy and can lead to bad decisions. It may well be that a high performer has already peaked, or that an underperformer will do well in a different context or with the right support. The world needs to use its talent better and we badly need more sophisticated approaches for identifying and nurturing it. I commend both Mr Ankerson and the team from SHL for putting some forward.

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