Business Journal

How Great Managers Define Talent

Selecting for talent is the first key

Normally we associate talent only with celebrated excellence -- with a strong emphasis on the word "celebrated." We look at Michael Jordan, swaying and knifing his way to the basket, and we know that neither his training nor his dogged determination are the prime source of his brilliance. He may have both of these, but, then, so do most other NBA players. Alone, these cannot explain why Michael shines. Deep down we know that his secret weapon is his talent. We look at Robert De Niro and we think the same: he has talent. Tiger Woods, Jay Leno, Maya Angelou, they are all part of the talent club. They are blessed with a secret gift. For most of us, talent seems a rare and precious thing, bestowed on special, far-away people. They are different, these people with talent. They are "not us."

Great managers disagree with this definition of talent. It is too narrow, too specialized. Instead, they define a talent as "a recurring pattern of thought, feeling or behavior that can be productively applied." The emphasis here is on the word "recurring." Your talents, they say, are the behaviors you find yourself doing often. You have a mental filter that sifts through your world, forcing you to pay attention to some stimuli, while others slip past you, unnoticed. Your instinctive ability to remember names, rather than just faces, is a talent. Your need to alphabetize your spice rack and color code your wardrobe is a talent. So is your love of crossword puzzles, or your fascination with risk, or your impatience. Any recurring patterns of behavior that can be productively applied are talents. The key to excellent performance, of course, is finding the match between your talents and your role.

This definition of talent is deceptively neutral, almost bland. Nevertheless, it guides great managers toward a momentous discovery: Every role, performed at excellence, requires talent, because every role, performed at excellence, requires certain recurring patterns of thought, feeling or behavior. This means that great nurses have talent. So do great truck drivers and great teachers, great housekeepers and great flight attendants. . . .

Regardless of the role and regardless of whether the excellence is "celebrated" or anonymous, great managers know that excellence is impossible without talent.

Next week: Managing by remote control.


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