This is a question (What if Lance Armstrong wanted YOUR job?) I ask the participants of the Talent Management day I do around 40 times each year (for the past 4 years) with one of our clients, for their senior managers.
I ask this question during the section in which we explore what talent looks like? What talent looks like is an interesting exploration. Interesting because the answers are as diverse as the people you ask it to. Some say talent is inherent (and often add ‘you’re born with it’ as if to really make the point), others say it’s something you can develop, and then there’s a third group who suggest it’s a bit of both.
Most people, however, when pushed a little will admit that if Lance Armstrong wanted their specific job, even if he had very little experience, skill and natural ability to do it, would be a major threat to them within a 5 year period. The reason they conclude this, is because he has a significant and impressive track record of working hard, pushing the boundaries and going to places within himself most of us just aren’t prepared to go. It immediately challenges most people’s paradigm that ‘talent’ is something you have to be really good at, have a passion for, or even enjoy in a fundamental structural kind of way. It highlights the impact that hard work and determination plays, and really means that, in most human endeavors, if we want it bad enough and are prepared to put in the hard yards, we can quite possibly achieve our goal.
Sir Ken Robinson, in his well known talk, ‘Do Schools Kill Creativity?‘, alludes to this near the begining when describing a young girl who performed at the TED conference he addresses, says something to effect of,
“She’s exceptional, but I don’t think she’s exceptional in the whole of childhood. What you have there is a person with extraordinary DEDICATION who FOUND a talent.”
I think it’s important to have this conversation within the current ‘war for talent’ debate, simply because we so often restrict and narrow the pool we look for talent within, because we have a view of talent that we’ve not fully interrogated. We run the risk of not noticing those with incredible dedication and commitment, simply because they don’t exhibit the qualities we’ve come to believe talented people should exhibit. I’m certainly not suggesting that we get rid of everything we believe talent to be, and do a major overhaul. I think much of what we believe talent to be is valid, but I do think we need to expand our paradigms and acknowledge that there are other incredibly important dimensions that we so often overlook, and even possibly should rather focus on?
In short, I think we’re lazy in this particular area of thinking. And quite frankly we can’t afford to be lazy in an environment where depth and gravitas are at an all time low. We’ve got to expand the pool from which we select talent, and we need to focus our attention of new areas that will ensure the outcomes and results we require to survive going forward.
If I may, allow me to end this with some anecdotal evidence. World number one tennis play, Andre Agassi. In November 2009, Agassi spilled the beans on his life as a tennis player and drug addict, in a 60 Minutes Interview. I’ve included the 2 parts to his interview below, if you’re interested in hearing what he has to say.
The thing that struck me as I listened to Agassi reflect on his life, was not that he used drugs while at the top of his game, but that for how long he’s hated tennis. Coupled with the fact that he credits his father’s drive and ambition for his success. Another paradigm busting thought in the context of what talent looks like. How on earth do you get to number one in the world of tennis and not enjoy playing tennis. In fact not remembering ever not hating tennis? This flies in the face of our conventional view of linking talent to passion, and then passion to something you love. Agassi’s story suggests that talent and success aren’t necessarily linked to passion.
“Did you ever look at your dad and say, ‘Pops, I hate this. I hate it so much. Please don’t make me do it’?” Couric asked.
“No,” Agassi said. “I needed to do it for the family, possibly an unnecessary burden for a child, but one that I definitely carried.”
“What do you think he would have done if you had said that to him?” Couric asked.
“‘You don’t have to love it. You’re gonna do it. This is what we do. This is what you’re gonna do. You’re born to be a tennis player. You’re gonna be the best in the world. And that’s the end of it,'” Agassi said.
Being “the best” meant hitting the road, traveling to tournaments every weekend. And when he wasn’t, he was taking on a ferocious ball machine Andre Agassi nicknamed “the dragon.”
“It was really scary. Especially to a seven year old,” Agassi remembered.
“Shooting tennis balls at one hundred and ten miles an hour to seven-year-old boy?” Couric asked.
“One hundred and ten miles an hour, because my dad put a souped-up engine in it. We didn’t have ball machines that hit the ball that hard back then.”
“He was a maniac,” Couric remarked.
“He was a mad scientist, as well,” Agassi said.
Asked if that was the age when he decided that he hated tennis, Agassi told Couric, “It always came with a level of anxiety. It always came with a level of pressure. None of it really made sense to me. So I don’t ever remember really not hating it.”
Very interesting – is this actually a reflection more on the type of people you normally present to? Obviously: salesman, preacher, motivational speaker… these things are heavily concentrated in soft skills. In some cases, too much knowledge is actually bad for these careers as it creates ambivalence and indecisiveness. On the other hand, would you replace your grey old MD with Lance Armstrong if you were sick (despite all of the drugs he is alleged to have taken), or your surgeon, or get him to value your pension scheme instead of your grey old actuary? I don’t think so.
But replacing long serving preacher with big name enthusiastic Lance Armstrong (even if he only got “saved” last year) might bring back the crowds.
Your question for starting the discussion was really interesting. First when I read the question, I never thought that what this question will end with, but I think at the end all the participants really felt what you want them to realize. It was really interesting for me.
Also the facts about Agassi was shocking. I mean I really got electrified once I read it. I think this is an exception and we can not conclude any fact out of this story!!!
No it’s not a reflection on the sort of people I normally present to. I agree the analogy may be lacking in some areas, but the point I’m driving is that we often look at talent with a very narrow perspective. My goal was simply to open up thinking around what else we should be looking for when it comes to talent? Even in so-called ‘hard businesses’ the predominant thinking around talent remains very ‘soft’ and even conceptual.
Of course there are some specific roles that people perform (pilot, surgeon, CEO) that have a tried and tested time frame that contributes towards excellence and ability. If Lance Armstrong, with his work ethic, decided to take on one of those roles, and put in the necessary time needed, I think he’d make a darn fine candidate. So if he put in the hours required to fly a commercial plane, outside of his obvious fame and brand, I reckon he’d be very very good.
I’m just adding a layer here. I’m not replacing the traditional wisdom. I’m asking what role hard work, determination, focus and commitment play? I’m not sure we measure them, and I’m not certain we pay much attention to them either?
Let me ask the question this way then… how many people give up the pursuit of a particular space because they don’t measure up to what we’ve come to describe talent? I agree you can’t make a case out of one example, and perhaps it is extreme, still even though it is extreme, it does make a powerful point, that being that Agassi got to number one in the world without the usual ‘talent characteristics’. It does make me sit up and think a little differently.