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Why talent is not always the answer

Warren Kennaugh
16 November 2016 3 minute readShare
Warren Kennaugh

If you hire employees based solely on talent, you'll likely come a cropper down the track, writes researcher and author Warren Kennaugh.

Talent is rare, and like all rare things, from the butterfly orchid to a perfectly cut ocean dream diamond, its is prized and highly valued.

Businesses shell out millions to secure the latest superstar salesperson or out-of-the-box CEO. In sport, talented players are enticed to new clubs with obscene salaries and jaw-dropping perks.

Commercially, our fixation with talent was triggered by global consulting powerhouse McKinsey & Co.

Of course, McKinsey is a high respected organisation with huge global reach, so naturally when they announced that the very best companies had leaders who were obsessed with talent, people listened.

According to their 'war for talent' research initiative, what made the best companies so successful was their focus on attracting and recruiting talented star performers, often by offering disproportionate rewards and then constantly pushing those people into more and more senior roles.

They were wrong.

For a start, the research that ignited a flaming passion for talent actually consisted of detailed analysis of just 18 companies, all from the US. Eighteen from a pool of hundreds of thousands of businesses is hardly a statistically significant sample.

It’s almost as though they started with their hypothesis – talent is the answer to all performance problems – and found 18 companies that demonstrated the validity of their theory.

Focusing on talent is unreliable

There is little doubt that if you look at brilliantly performing companies there will be a few talented individuals involved in those results, but what about all the companies that are not doing very well that also have a few talented individuals?

What about the mega-rich sports clubs that attract a plethora of talented players but never win a trophy?

In some cases, talent seems to makes a difference, and in others it doesn’t. And in others still, talent seems to actively derail performance, so if the results are so patchy then clearly talent is not the differentiating factor.

Our obsession with talent means we will continue to experience unreliable results when looking for ways to elevate performance and deliver greater shareholder value. Besides, finding, recruiting and keeping talent is an expensive and time-consuming business.

Those that are talented usually know it and will negotiate hard for maximum remuneration and bonuses. The fact that they know it means they can often be a little arrogant and may not ‘play well with others’. This can alienate the team and push performance down.

And finally, talent doesn’t take personality, and therefore ‘fit’, into account.

Fit is the answer

Fit is much, much more important than what we currently consider as talent. When you understand what drives you from the inside, understand your ‘bright side’ nature (or what we are best suited to) and your ‘dark side’ (or how you can sabotage your own performance and success), you can make sure you are in the right place, doing the right thing, in the right team or organisation for you. In short, ensuring you fit!

When you understand your own personality, you can match your personality, skills and abilities with the right role and right organisation or team, which in turn creates the environment and circumstances for talent to flourish.

Talent, certainly as we currently think about, it is a ‘you either have it or you don’t’ phenomenon: an elusive divine spark that separates the gifted from the also-rans. It’s not. Talent is the inevitable output of understanding ‘fit’.

The more an individual’s natural strengths, characteristics, skillset and values fit with what is required in the role and fit with the organisation itself, the higher the performance will be. And yet the notion of fit is almost exclusively ignored in favour of talent, intelligence or some other holy grail of performance.

The ‘secret ingredient’ of high performance is not talent, it’s ‘fit’. If there is no fit it doesn’t matter how talented you are or how hard you work, you will never realise your potential.

Warren Kennaugh is a speaker, researcher and consultant as well as the author of Fit: When Talent and Intelligence Just Won’t Cut It.

Why talent is not always the answer
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Warren Kennaugh

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