Friday, 19 July 2013 14:03

The Talent Myth

Everyone’s talking about ways to find opportunity amid times of uncertainty and change. Yet there’s something right under our noses that’s being overlooked: Times of crisis present unprecedented opportunities to stretch and develop real leadership capabilities.

What’s needed, specifically?

Hire more executive coaches, step up sessions, and implement more training and development programs.

In tough times, you cannot rely on talent and luck. Even when you have a talented team at the top, people need help in stretching their capabilities to meet the overwhelming demands of a 21st century marketplace.

 Scientific research on great performance has persuasively shown that key abilities are developed. They don’t occur naturally. Great leaders aren’t born; they’re made—and the research to support this is overwhelming. What we previously thought of as innate can often be taught. Leadership capabilities are acquired through constructive practice and developmental opportunities, and today’s business volatility calls for both.

“The key to this development is pushing people—or people pushing themselves—just beyond their current abilities, forcing them to do things that they can’t quite do,” according to Fortune Senior  Editor Geoff Colvin, author of Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers From Everybody Else (Portfolio, 2008).

In studies of accomplished individuals, researchers have found few signs of precocious achievement before their subjects began intensive training. Similar findings have turned up in studies of musicians, tennis players, artists, swimmers, mathematicians and chess players.

Talent or Hard Work?

We can safely draw the conclusion that there’s plenty of opportunity for everyone. Many high-performing executives will tell you they don’t rely on their innate talents as much as their hard-earned skills.

CEOs like A.G. Lafley of P&G and GE’s Immelt have said that being forced to manage through crises early in their careers enhanced their abilities in ways that were critical to becoming CEOs. They wouldn’t have achieved their status without surviving the storms that gave them hands-on practice.

Certain practices can make our experiences especially productive:

  •     Coaching helps.
  •     Receiving feedback allows us to fine-tune our skills.
  •     Working in a safe learning environment is essential.
  •     A work environment which is closely aligned with our professional goals, personal preferences and values is conducive to greater personal achievement.

Workplaces that encourage practice and development, and mistakes should be viewed as learning opportunities. You also need to clearly define and develop a plan for achieving the abilities you wish to hone, including a measurable time frame. This will turbo-charge your performance and improve your chances of success.


10,000 Hours or 10 Years

Malcolm Gladwell makes the case for 10,000 hours of practice to attain expertise in his book Outliers (Little, Brown & Co., 2008):

“The 10,000-hours rule says that if you look at any kind of cognitively complex field, from playing chess to being a neurosurgeon, we see this incredibly consistent pattern that you cannot be good at that unless you practice for 10,000 hours, which is roughly 10 years, if you think about four hours a day.”

Almost all child prodigies in music, sports, chess and the arts seem to put in 10,000 hours before they attain expertise and produce significant results.

The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, edited by Anders Ericsson, Charness and Feltovich, et al, compiles scientific studies to prove the point in a wide variety of fields. The trait we commonly call talent is highly overrated. Or, put another way, expert performers “whether in memory or surgery, ballet or computer programming” are nearly always made, not born.

Many of us have already put in more than a decade of doing what we do. The question is whether we’re practicing the right things, in the right way. Practice does not make perfect. Rather, perfect practice make perfect.


What Is Deliberate Practice?


Anders Ericsson and his scientific colleagues emphasise the importance of deliberate practice, which is characterised by several elements:


  •     It is an activity designed specifically to improve performance, often with the help of a teacher, coach or expert.
  •     It can be repeated frequently.
  •     Feedback on results is continuously available.
  •     It’s highly demanding mentally.
  •     It isn’t much fun and entails hard work.


If you think you’ve outgrown the need for a teacher or coach, it’s time to challenge this assumption. A business coach can see things a manager cannot and is trained to deliver feedback in a way that’s inaccessible to most managers.


Without a clear, unbiased view of your performance, you cannot choose the best practice activities.  Hire a coach who can properly stretch you beyond your current abilities and help you move out of your comfort zones. Otherwise, human nature dictates that you’re likely to spend your time practicing what you already know how to do instead of new behaviours which are difficult and uncomfortable.


According to Noel Tichy, PhD, a professor of organizational  behaviour and human resources management at the University of Michigan School of Business, our progress depends on leaving our comfort zone to enter the learning zone, where skills and abilities are just out of reach.

What About Passion?


Talent is not the overarching driver of successfully developing high level capabilities. Those who care the most will rise to the top. Exceptional performance depends on what we decide to do with our lives and the passion that drives us.


One of the most purchased articles from the Harvard Business Review is a 1968 piece on motivation that explains our three main drives:


  1.     Achievement
  2.     Power
  3.     A sense of community and desire to help others


No matter your driving force, you have to care deeply enough to work hard to become exceptional.


Nothing can make you endure the pain and sacrifice of deliberate practice for decades unless you’re carried by an intrinsic compulsion to do so.

Talent Is Never Enough


In Talent Is Never Enough: Discover the Choices That Will Take You Beyond Your Talent, (Thomas Nelson, 2007), leadership expert John C. Maxwell suggests talent is “often overrated and frequently misunderstood.” He advises readers to build their strengths to become a “talent-plus person,” defined by the following tenets:


  •     Belief lifts your talent.
  •     Initiative activates your talent.
  •     Focus directs your talent.
  •     Preparation positions your talent.
  •     Practice sharpens your talent.
  •     Perseverance sustains your talent.
  •     Character protects your talent.


Even if you hold onto the notion that you’ll always survive because of your innate talent, you must still prepare, practice and persist. The scientific research is in, and it’s conclusive. Hard work—not talent—contributes to high performance.


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