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Don’t get blinded by the stars: Why great talent is not always the answer


It’s easy to see why we are so obsessed with talent. Talent is rare, and like all rare things from the butterfly-orchid to a perfectly cut ocean dream diamond to the ability to sink a full court basket to artistic, musical or commercial brilliance, its scarcity is prized and highly valued.

Business shells out millions to secure the latest superstar salesperson or out-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 very best companies so successful was their focus on attracting and recruiting talented star performers, often by offering disproportionate reward 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 that result. But what about all the companies that are not doing very well who also have a few talented individuals involved in that result.

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 different and in others it doesn’t, and in other still talent seems to actively derail performance so if 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 which push performance down not up. 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 we understand what drives us from the ‘inside’, understand our ‘bright side’ nature or what we are best suited to and our ‘dark side’ or how we sabotaged our own performance and success we can make sure we are in the right place doing the right thing in the right team or organisation for us.

In short – ensuring we fit!

When we understand our own personality we can match our personality, skills and abilities with the right role and right organization or team which in turn creates the environment and circumstance for talent to flourish.

Talent, certainly as we currently think about it is a ‘you either have it or you don’t’ phenomena – 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, skill set 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.

Warren Kennaugh is a Behavioural Strategist who works with elite corporate leaders, gifted professional athletes and world leading teams. He is a speaker, researcher and consultant who is the author of FIT: When Talent and Intelligence Just Won’t Cut It (Wiley).

Warren Kennaugh