Answering the question of what talent is is elusive. The Royal Academy of Language defines it as the ability to perform an occupation. Aseptic and unhelpful definition, like that of Montesquieu: “Talent is a gift that God gives us in secret and that we reveal without knowing it.” Of course, we all know what our interlocutor means when he talks about it. Now, is talent something absolute or circumstantial? Is it momentary or does it grow? Can you help it grow? Is it the same as aptitude? Any of us feel capable of answering these questions, and we will surely defend it fervently. But it is not clear that it is really a correct answer. In fact, talent hunters , those consultants who set themselves up as talent recognizers and evaluators, are looking for something they don’t know how to define . Furthermore, can talent be “spotted” or is it simply known when it is found? Many headhunters argue that it is a mixture of method and intuition, paper and nose.
In the 1990s, what was called The War for Talent was produced. A team of three consultants from McKinsey & Co – Ed Michaels, Helen Handfield-Jones and Beth Axelrod –, the largest and most prestigious management and business administration consultancy, conducted a study where questionnaires were sent to 6,000 managers from across the US and turned their attention to 77 powerful firms, where they interviewed everything from the CEO to the human resources staff. After such intense work, the three consultants decided that the most important resource of a successful company is talent: intelligent and sophisticated executives, savvy with technology, astute and agile when it comes to acting. The search for this ‘talent’ is a continuous war of attrition, a fight without final victory .
As McKinsey director and project leader Ed Michaels put it: “The only thing that matters is talent . Talent wins.” So these experts recommended that the only way to keep the talented in the fold is to continually offer them exorbitant perks and let them do whatever they want. As confirmation of their discovery, in 2000 they completed a second round of interviews – 13,000 executives and 112 companies – that confirmed their initial conclusions.
The fickle world of top executives – capable of fueling silly truisms and platitudes of the caliber of the famous best-selling book Who Ate My Cheese? – became convulsed, and numerous books appeared in the heat of what the journalist Malcolm Gladwell called the “intellectual justification” to pay absolutely disproportionate salaries to those who have previously paid the high sums required to obtain a “prestigious” MBA. Because talent, as measured by McKinsley experts, is found among those who pass, for example, through the Harvard Business School.
But the great experiment in entrepreneurial talent was a company where McKinsey led 20 different projects, billed $10 million a year, where McKinsey’s CEO regularly attended board meetings, and where his CEO, the CEO of the company, had been a partner at McKinsley. The name of the company was Enron. In April 2001 McKinsey published a document clearly explaining their ideas; On December 2, Enron declared bankruptcy, becoming the biggest financial scandal in history . Following the traditional saying of “sustain it and don’t amend it”, the only ones who were not affected were the McKinsley consultants to the point that, today, one of them, Helen Handfield-Jones, from her company appears as “first expert in talent for leadership”.
The McKinsley consultant-economists made the mistake of believing that it is easy to assess talent even by one’s peers – part of their “technique” was an assessment of each executive by the rest. Furthermore, they believed that a high IQ (CI) guaranteed high professional performance. Richard Wagner, a psychologist at Florida State University, reveals that this is not true: no study shows a significant correlation between IQ and job performance.
Carol Dweck, an expert in motivation for learning from Stanford University, has conducted two revealing experiments about how we see our own talent. In general, the human being is divided into two groups: those who think that intelligence it is something fixed and those who think it is malleable . So at the University of Hong Kong, one of the institutions with the highest demand in the area, he gave the English grades to the social science students –who know that they will need this language in their future work– and offered them supplementary classes for improve the note. What Dweck hoped is that those with the worst grades would sign up for the class. To his surprise it was not. Only those students who believed in the malleability of intelligence expressed interest in the classes . Those who believed that nothing can be done with intelligence preferred to stay at home.
In another experiment with preteens, Dweck gave them a list of problems to solve. At the end, he praised one group for their effort and the other for their intelligence. In the latter, something curious happened: they were reluctant to face other more difficult problems –so their performance began to decline– and when writing to a student from another school about their experience in the study, 40% lied about your score…rolling up, naturally. Could it be that moving around in an environment where innate talent is extolled ends up clipping its wings?
Gladwell, M. (2008) Outliers: the story of success , Little, Brown and Co