Talent in Management and sports

This article is published in the September’2008 issue of the magazine The Management Compass

The fear factor

What is stopping Indian sportsmen from emulating the chinese and US success story?

China had been going all out to put in an impressive performance at the Beijing Olympics. China’s leaders have had a long tradition of using sports to boost national pride. For china, a significant victory at Beijing would enhance its potential superpower status. Its vast multibillion sports machine has only one goal in mind — grooming Olympic champions. At the time of writing this piece, they seem to be succeeding in their mission; currently, China is at the top with 35 Golds, 13 silver and 13 bronze (on August 18).

The heartening thing about the Beijing Olympics is that India too finally managed to produce an Individual Olympic champion, 108 years after the Olympics restarted, Abhinav Bindra received the first individual gold medal in shooting in the 10ms Air rifle category from a strong field of 122 shooters from nearly 100 countries. His impressive performance got him the kind of adulation that is normally reserved for cricket and Bollywood stars in India. Apart from being feted for his achievements both by the President and the Prime Minister, the manner in which the newspapers and news channels covered him made him a national hero and an eligible bachelor overnight. However, considering that it was the first individual gold medal for a nation of a billion plus population in such a long time, everything said in his praise would seem like an understatement.

Bindra mentioned in one of his interviews that our country’s sports administration needs to be brushed up in a way that winning such medals should be more a rule than the exception. How does one achieve that? The Mittal Steel Trust (MCT), with a corpus of $10 million set up by steel baron Laxmi Mittal to support talented Olympic aspirants, is a handsome initiative. Bindra was one of the beneficiaries of Mittal’s largesse. The Olympic gold quest by India’s sporting legends Geet sethi and Prakash Padukone backed by business funds is another such initiative. Apollo Tyres Mission hopes to create a Grand Slam champion in India in Tennis by 2018 and NIIT Mind Champion Academy has taken chess to 4,000 schools across India. While all these attempts are laudable and one hopes that other business houses follow their footsteps, will that be enough?

The China model

One needs to have look at the way China develops its champions. After 1959, when Rong Guotuan made history as China’s first world Table Tennis champion, to maintain ping pong supremacy, coaches fanned out across the countryside looking for kindergartners with quick reflexes and superior hand-eye co-ordination. In their table tennis school, kids train for four hours everyday in the morning and three times a week in the evening with academic classes in between. Many kids see their parents for only a couple of weeks each year. That maybe a little far fetched but a proactive talent spotting process has to be there in place to ensure that talent is spotted at a very young age and groomed on a continuous basis.

Retirement blues

That is one aspect of talent management in sports. There are deeper issues involved. Who shall take care of the sportsmen after they retire, is a prime worry that prevents many a talented sportsman from opting for a sports career or devote full time to it with a single minded focus.

The China Sports Daily estimates that 80 per cent of the world’s retired athletes are plagued by poverty, unemployment or chronic health problems, resulting from overtraining. India’s record is hardly impressive. Norman Gilbert Pritchard, who got silver medals for India for 200m sprint and hurdles in 1900 and was the first man to score a hat-trick in Indian football, died a physical and mental wreck in New York in 1929. Freestyle wrestler KD Jadhav won a bronze for India in the 57kg bantamweight category but got nothing on his return, apart from felicitation. He was killed in a road accident in 1988, for which his widow received a paltry for Rs 25,000. He was posthumously awarded the Arjuna Award in 2001. This is peanuts for people who win medals for the country. Hockey Wizard Dhyan Chand’s son Ashok Kumar had himself been in the Indian hockey team but he mentioned once that since Dhyan Chand did not get anything out of hockey, he did not want any of his sons to play after his playing days got over. Though Flying Sikh Milkha Singh’s son Jeev is now an established golfer, the father did not exactly approve of the son’s choice of career in sports because of his own experience of disappointment with the returns on his achievement.

Sportsmen from other disciplines may face problems of a different kind. Tennis ace Vijay Amritraj revealed in his autobiography that his worst nightmare after retirement would be to be forced in a business not of his liking just to support his family. India’s former coach John Wright had to actually live through that nightmare. In his book Indian Summers ,Wright explains his experience in the corporate world after retiring as a test cricketer, before he became coach for Kent and then, India. In his own words, “Working at Fletchers gave me a crash course on everyday reality, which for many people boils down to earning a living doing something they wouldn’t necessarily choose to do. I had gone from doing something I had a passion for to doing something completely different, which, with the best will in the world, I wasn’t passionate about.” Kapil Dev’s autobiography reveals how a senior cricketer like Chandu Borde was humiliated routinely by the board as he was dependent on them for a job.

Right choices

Fortunately, Bindra seems to have earned a fair amount of prize money from various sources. He is a rich man’s son but otherwise, would it suffice to sustain him for a lifetime? Who will take care of the responsibilities on retirement. Maybe other corporate houses would come forward to absorb them just the way some of them absorb cricketers. Bindra’s spectacular achievement is a good opportunity to look at talent management from a different perspective on how excellence can be achieved both in sports and other spheres. The book Welcome to the Talent Wars by Bruce Tulgan and Now, discover your strengths by Marcus Buckinhgam offer insights into talent management, which one can apply from sports to corporate management and vice- versa.

Both Tuglan and Buckingham have emphasised the importance of knowing your one’s specific niche and planning accordingly. Buckingham has given the example of super golfer Tiger Woods and English soccer star David Beckham. Tiger woods knew that his bunker play was poor. Once he made sure that it reached acceptable levels, he focused totally on his dominant strength, his swing. Explaining how English soccer star David Beckham hit a 35 yard shot to beat Equador 1-0, Buckingham says that he had become so overwhelmingly good at bending long range free kicks into the net that this one strength virtually defined his entire role. He calls this rarefied specialisation and advises emulating it in the management world. Buckingham has written extensively on how silly it is to correct a weakness at the cost of building a strength. Whether before or after retirement, or in sports or other disciplines, nothing can be truer and if one discovers one’s niche at a young age, chances of success improve considerably.

Buckingham has also said that it is better to aim for well-rounded organisations with people complimenting each other’s weaknesses. The percentage of great all rounders to total number of cricketers is extremely low and even if one were to possess that kind of versatility, one can only focus at one area at a time. The core of talent management is to know your niche and build on it.

Phelps phenomenon

There will of course be honorable exceptions. Swimming superstar Michael Phelps is one. By winning eight gold medals, he conquered Mark Spitz’ record of seven gold medals and with the highest number of individual gold medals, became the greatest Olympian of all times. He is not great just because he got eight — he has achieved single handedly what India could achieve in 108 years. Phelps’ total tally — 16 golds and 2 bronzes — towers over India’s total tally in 108 years. Phelps has 14 golds against India’s nine. Without his contribution, the US gold tally would be halved.
Phelps was diagnosed with Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in school but as his talent was spotted early, he focused only on that. I had read in one write- up how some ADHD children have a very high IQ but only in one or a few areas. Such people cannot afford to be in the wrong profession. If not handled properly, they can make a nuisance of themselves and even take to crime. Phelps has shown what is possible when they are in their prime, which is possible only with the right kind of talent management.
When people are in their right roles, they represent the strength, health and wealth of a nation. A person who could have been a zero is a superhero and what is a nation without its heroes?

If some superstars like the players mentioned above cannot afford not to know their sub niche within their main professions, can anyone afford to be in wrong profession at all?

Former seven times world Billiards champion Geet Sethi answers that both for sports and management. In his book Success v/s Joy, he states that after exposure to the game for only a few months, he got addicted to billiards at the age of 13. Though Sethi focused on billiards, his friend Sunil Aggarwal did the opposite. Though he shared his passion for billiards, he focused on his IIM and IIT and achieved the exalted social status as the managing director of a company. He declared that a feeling of inadequacy and failure dogged him continuously, which was primarily because of lack of achievement in what he considered to be his true passion — the billiards table. Considering that such well-qualified man can talk like this, can sportsmen or anybody for that matter afford to be in the wrong occupation?

Talent and passion

Former football superstar Pele, considered by many to be the greatest ever football player ever answers that when he says, “I felt a strange calmness… a kind of euphoria. I felt I could run all day without tiring, that I could dribble through any of their team or all of them, that I could almost pass through them physically.” Pele also said,
“Enthusiasm is everything. It must be taut and vibrating like a guitar string.” Which reminds one of former management leader Charles Schwab’s assertion, “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm”. Talent management in this perspective is nothing but locating and redirecting talent in the right areas, whether is management or in sports. Both our World cup winning captains, Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Kapil Dev are prime examples. Both were ardent footballers but switched to cricket because both discovered by chance that they could hit the ball very hard while trying another activity (batting) in another sport (Cricket).

Doesn’t that imply that training matters more than education in spotting and grooming talent? This is because talent is actually activity centric unless one is involved in research. According to Buckingham, “Whatever our job happens to be, it comprises several activities. Some invigorate us, some leave us neutral, some deplete us, bore us or drain us. There cannot a perfect job we love but the jobs can be sculpted around activities which strengthen us.” Buckingham has asserted in his book that 8 out of 10 people not using their strengths actually shows tremendous scope for talent management. In sports career switching is relatively easier as it is more activity centric.

A word of caution here. According to Buckingham, interest without adequate ability can also be dicey. Giving the example of Basketball superstar Michael Jordan, he says that even if he had not spent countless hours in the Gym, he would have still been a better player than most of us.. But without those hours in the Gym, he would not have become the star he was”. Talent management implies a healthy balance of both talent and passion. Buckingham has also explained what a waste of time and money it is to send people for training for talents that they do not possess. According to him, while skills and knowledge can be learnt, Talents are inborn and cannot.

Management lessons

Tuglan offers some valuable insights while comparing education with training. He says “General Electric alone — with its stunning college campus at New York — spends $500 a year on training and education, 10 times more than the total annual tuition paid by Harvard’s MBA student body in a typical year. Nobody can be stubborn and insist that the only way to train people is for the long haul, mimicking the obsolete pedagogy of yesteryear. Corporate training and distance learning will eventually wipe out many, if not most of the graduate business programmes in existence today.”

One of the chapters in Tuglan’s book is Turn Managers into Coaches. According to him, personal coaching is much more effective in getting the best out of people. Tuglan says “If it takes your organization months on end of years to get people up to speed into meaningful roles, you have a serious problem in today’s short term environment. Neither individuals or organizations that employ them have any more time for long term knowledge acquisition. It is no longer sufficient for anybody to receive their education up front through formal schooling and expect that education to last them very long. You have to identify quickly what a person is capable of, choose the right role for that person, teach that person exactly what he needs to know to play that role and then require that he gives it all. Depending upon his, there should ba a multiplicity of opportunity for you.” He gives the examples of US Marines on how in 11 weeks, they can get a person ready. Explaining a training programme for a new trainee, an example of one company was given with a training programme from week to week, where the individual is assessed at the end of every month. According to the company “Every day is meant to be like an MBA crash course because we have hired you to run our business”

Such emphasis on training rather than formal education may allay some of the fears that sportsmen have about what to do after retirement. I had once come across the businessman father of a promising Tennis player who was wary of going all the way because of the risks that it entailed. When one reads of the difficulties of career switching at sites like http://www.careerswitchers.org or books like Working Identity even in the western world, one can hardly blame him. That apart, career switching can sometimes bring out very promising talent — Amitabh Bachchan is also a case of lateral career transition who came up more because of hands-on coaching rather than formal education in acting.
The word education comes from the latin word educere which implies to bring out what is already in, which perhaps can be done better in some cases by hands-on coaching.

Following the philosophy of “The best are worth accommodating”, Tuglan states that in the current scenario, companies have to bend backwards to accommodate aspirations of the best talent. The book mainly talks of how the most talented people in management are now thinking like free agents (like professional athletes and actors) and how it is not possible to achieve excellence without catering to their specific needs, whether it is a three way workweek or sticking to one location instead of shifting them around etc. It talks of fluid and flexible staffing: “Learn to employ people wherever, whenever and however they are willing… Where and when people work matters much less in the new economy than what people actually do and how they do it… In the new economy, career customization will be the norm, not the exception”.

If these are the new standards of talent management, we can hardly afford to mistreat our sports or other superstars before or after retirement. The people who make the country proud can hardly be treated as the rest of the crowd.

True to his name

The word Abhinav means brand and uniquely new and one must say that with his achievement, he has lived up to his name. Though old is gold in a certain context, we should ensure that his gold never becomes old and continuously inspires us to better performance. The name of the first citizen of the country, the President of India, is Pratibha or talent, which should symbolise our conduct. Bindra has set a healthy precedent. Following letter and spirit, President and precedent, it is better if we pull up our socks in talent management to live up to the new Olympic spirit everywhere. Otherwise the saying Chak de India may end up meaning more like chuck (leave Olympic aspirations) de India.. And instead of our players being on song, “Hum honge Kamyaab” will remain what it is — just a song.
———————–End of Published Article——————————–
Though perhaps not evident in the way the article has been edited, much of Bindra’s success has come from some of the factors mentioned in the article- discovering his passion(talent) at a young age, having the flexibility to devote to it with a single minded focus, having no worries of life after the sport etc. Competency based systems which have a people orientation rather than a task orientation are more likely to detect talent at a young age.

That apart the chapters of Tuglan’s books is clearly indicative of a sports model for training which can be applied in management:-

Talent is the show,
Staff the work, not the jobs,
Pay for performance and nothing else
Turn Managers into coaches

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