Talent tapping, an art

This article that was published in the HR magazine called “Management Compass” on July’2007.

Notwithstanding many self-help books, you can’t change your talent set. You can only help yourself by fitting into the right role

I joined the Kedia group of companies sometime in September 1992 as assistant manager (MIS) and was pleasantly surprised when my childhood school friend, AK joined as assistant manager (exports) fifteen days later. From the very beginning, his razor sharp alertness, street smartness in dealing with people and superb communication were so evident that within three weeks of joining, I told him, “You have the talent to be among the best in the corporate world”. I could not have been more right because AK also turned out to be a superb organiser and administrator, a very good strategist and team builder and because of these and other qualities, a good leader. Since he was very versatile and good in all major functions (finance, marketing, operations), he got several double promotions and in just about an year’s time, the chairman made him chief executive of the international division. Considering that they had a turnover of Rs 150 crores at that time, the chairman had many people to choose from and this was no small achievement.

Later he left and set up a big project consultancy business within a span of few years and further diversified into hotels and BPOs.

Around August 1995 when we went our separate ways, when I wrote a couple of poems on him and the company’s expansion and diversification, he told me, “You are better suited for this than the corporate world,” which subsequently proved absolutely right. He also added “You should do what you can do spontaneously and effortlessly”. This, to my mind is the most obvious definition of talent. When we joined neither of us knew of our own latent abilities but after the interaction, we were able to guess each other’s potential with pinpoint accuracy. When we came together, I was both well- read in management and much more experienced but I and some of the others stood absolutely no chance against his prodigious talent. Three other people joined from the same institute as AK but he was far better in practical application. Even today, he is head and shoulders above his equally and better qualified partners.

Current situation

Talent management is in vogue these days. Though the term is usually used in the context of celebrities in field of creative arts, when one considers a broader spectrum, the problem is that companies from a cross-section of industries — ICICI Bank, Pantaloon, Ernst and Young, TCS, Infosys etc — find conventional management education grossly inadequate and are tying up with academicians to provide customised solutions for their respective companies. One article even stated that only 20 per cent of the talent pool was suitable for corporate India and people had to be groomed for becoming industry-ready. This is critical as success in the future would depend on a company’s ability to find and retain talented people

In a country whose scriptures boast of terms like svadharma (one’s calling in life) and claim that the Sukshma (subjective-person) is more important than the sthula (objective-knowledge), how could conventional education fare so poorly? One reason obviously is that functional talent is evident only after the person tries a particular occupation. Nobody can really determine a talent in advance till he/she tries a particular job.
In today’s competitive environment, companies need to be nimble and flexible. The manager needs to probe each employee, look for differences in approach, needs and drive of each individual and then try to change his unique talents into performance in the context of the company’s goals. The manager should set realistic expectations and motivate and develop a person accordingly.

Talent defined

The most important thing is to understand what exactly the word “Talent” implies. Concluded from a survey interviewing the world’s top managers, the book First, Break All the Rules defines talent as “a recurring pattern of thought, feeling or behaviour that can be productively applied to a particular situation or role”. After every child is born, the child’s mind tries to reach out aggressively and by the third birthday, makes fifteen thousand synaptic connections (between the cells) for each of its one hundred billion neurons. These mental pathways are the filter which produce unique patterns of behaviour, which create her enthusiasms and indifferences and basically define where she will excel and where she will struggle. These pathways are indications to the child’s character and according to neuroscience, beyond a point, there is a limit to how much of her character she can recarve.

The book disproves the conventional wisdom that “Human beings have unlimited potential”. Every now and then, self-help books appear on how one can win in life on the basis of having the “right attitude” alone. Some of these so-called consultants even say that it is attitude more than talent that matters in performance. It may be true sometimes but on close examination, one can find that no two individuals do even the minutest of jobs exactly alike and in the long run. It is talent which is likely to have a greater weightage on how a person performs in all
circumstances.

Types of Talent

The book further says that talents are of three types — striving, thinking and relating talents. Striving talents explain the ‘whys’ of a person — is he altruistic or competitive or both, is he task-oriented or result-oriented or both? Thinking talents define the ‘hows’ of a person — is he a linear or a lateral thinker, is he disciplined or carefree etc. Relating talents define whom he relates with, confronts or ignores. The core activities of a manager and a leader are different. It is entirely possible for a person to be a brilliant manager but a terrible leader or vice-versa. But a few exceptional people excel at both. Mike Brearly is perhaps the only cricket captain in history who continued in the English cricket team on the strength of his captaincy alone as he was not much of a player. In the Indian context, Sourav Ganguly may pale in comparison to Tendulkar as a batsman but made a much better captain, which is something that nobody could have predicted. Tendulkar, being a great batsman, could have easily led by example but it was the lesser gifted batman Ganguly, who really excelled as a leader which is doubly
creditable.

This difference between “performers” and “leaders” is very well brought out by the book. Distinguishing between talent and non-talents, it gives examples of waiters, bartenders, housekeepers, nurses, data entry operators etc as to how the best were different from the rest even in minor jobs and were compensated highly without necessarily being promoted, if they did not have the talent for man management. The best bartender was someone who remembered names of 3,000 guests and their drinks and the champion data entry operator was four times faster than the rest.

I once had a ringside view of a continuous clash between the best salesman and the sales manager he reported to. The outstanding salesman could not be promoted because of certain personal limitations and since he was a star, the “nobody is indispensable” rule could not really be applied to him. The sales manager was not so good at sales but was a good man manager whom others reported to. The salesman always tried to indulge in a “one-upmanship” with the sales manager all the time who was compelled to reciprocate at times. The management did not know how to manage the conflict and lost the star salesman.

The real solution is broadbanding, which defines different ranges of salaries for different posts for both performers and man managers. Following this, it is possible for a superb police officer to be paid more than a less efficient sergeant without being promoted, a brilliant teacher can similarly earn more than a novice principle, an excellent flight attendant more valuable than an average pilot etc. This is talent management at its best as the concerned people remain motivated despite not being promoted for roles, that do not suit them.

The book also gives due respect to humble talents. A well-known management consultant stated in his book, “An excellent plumber is infinitely more admirable than an incompetent philosopher. The society which scorns excellence in plumbing because it is a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will neither have good plumbing not good philosophy. Neither its pipes not its theories will hold water.” Excellence need not be confined to what are considered “intelligent” or white collared roles. It is possible to have a role excellence in every role and talent in every individual who performs that role well. In the minds of great managers, every role performed with excellence deserves respect. For instance, a chore like housekeeping was studied and the precise behaviour traits that made the best housekeepers were defined which constituted “housekeeping talent”. Then, every effort was made to make housekeeping publicly revered and a genuine career choice.
It would not be out of place to mention here what lateral thinking expert Edward de Bono had said once that just because you have solved a complicated problem is no guarantee that you shall be able to solve a simple problem. Albert Einstein is a case in point when he admitted frankly, “The hardest thing to understand is income-tax.” He even refused the presidency of Israel because of lack of experience in working with human beings. This clearly shows that nothing should be taken for granted just because a person proves exceptional in one field no matter what it is. What Bono actually implies is that one type of talent is no guarantee that a person shall do equally well elsewhere whether as a subordinate, a boss or in a peer function or whether it is an exalted talent or a humble talent.

The father of management, Peter Drucker had said once that life is a relay race and the person who has the talent to start a company is not always the best to carry it forward. Since mental and emotional talents are not always so tangible or transparent compared to sports talent, expressions like “attitude problem”, “excuse”, “you can do it”, “reinvent yourself “etc are readily used without verifying whether the person has the requisite aptitude. Amitabh Bachchan has been able to reinvent himself even in old age but none of his contemporaries have achieved even moderate success. Sachin Tendulkar and Sunil Gavaskar have 35 and 34 centuries respectively in 135 and 125 tests but in one day cricket, the ratio is 40:1 in 378 and 108 matches respectively. It clearly reveals the more talented batsmen overall and the fact that

Gavaskar was not such a great one day player. All this clearly shows that domain expertise is not enough and one needs to know his particular sub- domain or his niche strength specifically. Chairman of selectors Dilip Vengsarkar aptly called cricketer VVS Laxman a “one dimensional talent”, which is probably the reason that despite being respected by the Australian bowlers, he could not make it to the world cups in 2003 and 2007.
In the context of a company, the nature and ambience of a company determines individual talent. A broker with a lot of desire and focus would be better in an entrepreneurial company and a broker blessed with achievement and discipline would be better in a more structured company. Lacking this knowledge, if both companies hire each other’s brokers, it may prove disastrous.

The main thrust is to make a person feel that he is in a role that uses his talents while simultaneously challenging him to grow.

The book further reveals that great managers know that there is a limit to how much remolding they can do to someone. They try to help each person become more and more of what he already is by focusing on his strengths and finding him a role that is aligned to his strengths rather than try to fix his weakness to be able to do the current job better. There is an example of a boss telling his subordinate “I love you and therefore I have to fire you” and then taking pains to find a job for that person to suit his talents rather than forcing him in the current role which did not suit him. This is the best example of tough love that a person can expect to find and is at variance with giving too much importance to attitude.

If everybody were to practice
this brand of socialism, the
world would be a much better
place to live in.

Talent, Skills & Competencies

First, Break All the Rules says that talent primarily depends on certain behaviour traits that are not easy to change. Many companies send their employees to training classes to learn new behaviours — empathy, assertiveness, relationship building etc. However, great managers believe that people don’t change much. The less articulate fellow shall never excel at debate and the intense competitor will never learn to be less assertive.

Competencies are part skill, part talent and part knowledge. When one refers to them, one should be clear in one’s mind which are skills and knowledge and can be taught and which are talents and cannot be taught. “Implementing business or management control systems” is a skill but “calm under pressure” is a talent that cannot be taught. It can be disastrous to suggest that the only way to become more effective is to change your nature. For example, if a person is persistently pessimistic, rather than telling him continuously to be positive, it is better to fit him in a role where skepticism is a key to success.

Talent and formal education

Superstar Amitabh Bachchan recently said in an interview about his son Abhishek’s movie career,” Family background does help but ultimately it is individual talent that matters.” One wonders how much education is required for the really talented considering the famous maxim “To do easily what others find difficult is talent; doing what is impossible for talent is genius”. In the movie Krrish, Naseerudin Shah is seen telling a prodigious Hritik Roshan, “Others are trained but you are gifted”. Natural talent manifests itself quite well without formal education — neither Amitabh Bachchan nor Dhirubhai Ambani received any real formal education but both were outstanding and enduring successes in their chosen fields. The book Ancient Wisdom for Management puts it very bluntly, “Academic degree is just an entry pass nothing else in any job.” Ambani himself admitted that for management tasks, he gives more attention to who takes more initiative and gets the job done rather than “paper qualifications.”
While skills and knowledge can be taught, talent cannot. Skills are ‘how to’ of a role that are transferable from person to person and can be improvised with practice. They are often situation-specific and faced with an unanticipated scenario, they lose much of their power unlike talent which is transferable from situation to situation.

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