Tuesday, July 19, 2011

How talented are you really?

We are forever being bombarded with literature on People Excellence (click here for examples). Personally I have worked with literally hundreds of people over my career and to be honest I think employees (people) are, in the main, all average. In other words I believe the majority of us have similar abilities. Don’t get me wrong, I do believe that:

  1. Most people go to work and want to do a good job 
  2. Most people enjoy being recognised for doing their job 
  3. There are superstars out there in particular fields and by the nature of their job they are easy to identify i.e.  Programmers, Surgeons, Athletes 
  4. The majority of people in “general management” type roles i.e. Marketing, Sales, Operations, HR  have similar ability (however unpalatable that may sound).
  5. There is a big difference between working hard and being a "superstar". NOTE: This is a big distinction for me. There are people whose hard work and determination are what makes them rise above the rest. However this is a considerable difference to natural ability.

What prompted me to think and write about this was a fascinating article on the HBR blog titled Great People Are Overrated. In particular the reference to the research by Boris Groysberg (see Chasing Stars) - "After examining the careers of more than 1,000 star analysts at Wall Street investment banks, and conducting more than two hundred frank interviews, Groysberg comes to a striking conclusion: star analysts who change firms suffer an immediate and lasting decline in performance. Their earlier excellence appears to have depended heavily on their former firms' general and proprietary resources, organizational cultures, networks, and colleagues. There are a few exceptions, such as stars that move with their teams and stars that switch to better firms. Female stars also perform better after changing jobs than their male counterparts do. But most stars who switch firms turn out to be meteors, quickly losing luster in their new settings."

Often “people” are blamed or praised regarding the unsuccessful or successful outcome (execution) of a new strategy. However if we are, in the main, average (similar ability) then the truth is that the outcome of any corporate function, strategic or not, comes from the sum of its parts, as well as external factors, and not simply people. Yet how many more times do I need to be told that without great people, failure is imminent. Perhaps a more apt description to articulate the statement would be – the outcome will be dependent on people trying there best to do a good job plus a multitude of other factors that may or may not be in your control (Global Financial Crisis anyone!).

Perhaps the 30th President of the USA, (John) Calvin Coolidge (1872 - 1933) was on to something when he said, "Nothing in the world can take the place of Persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent."

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