Talent and playing to your strenghts

Malcolm Gladwell launches a new book soon, Outliers, which I can’t wait to read. It’s topic, quite broadly, is talent and the new world of work. I’m not sure which way he is going to swing with the book, but he always ensures a gripping read and a different view point that stun most of his reading audience, this blogger included!

But tonight I was reading his latest article for The New Yorker and seem to have stumbled onto his new contention – that talent sometimes takes time to incubate and that the greatest artists/writers and creative people of all time tend to either be young geniuses or old masters. He notes in his article, however, that the young guns get much more celebrity and kudos because they are young than those who become masters late in life. In his New Yorker article, he compares artists Picasso and Cezanne, who came to creative mastery at polar opposite stages in life.

Buddy Love

We here in Australia also share this preponderance to celebrate youth more than they often deserve – from the AFL Draft and the mystery and news paper inches filled with wondering about who will pick up the latest talent, to the fresh celebrity of a new graduate employee who holds a certain ‘something’ that makes them more important or valuable than the older stage-rs.

Col Duthie posted last week at the Ergo Blog about how HR departments often try to ‘fix’ people within their companies by attending to their weaknesses with training programs and development course, when they should really be trying to leverage people for their strengths. I agree with this kind of thinking, but the Gladwell article has served to make me pause before blindly calling halt to working on my weaknesses. What is the best type of talent strategy to leverage your company towards a more innovative organisation?

Is it to find the best talent, perhaps the best marketer, creative or even administrative assistant and deal with the variants on performance such personality types experience? Or should HR functions search for people on the path towards their ultimate mastery, and thus pick people up who are still learning and can be funneled into ‘learning and development’ programs?

Perhaps more broadly, is it better for people to create the right environment and pursue their dreams of being ‘the’ person in their field? This is the kind of thinking I am most enamoured with lately. Pat Allan (whilst he will claim he is far from there) is doing it with gusto. Tim Ferris has made a living from giving himself space to ‘be’ and created a huge bread-crumb trail for people to follow with his 4-Hour Work week. Julian Cole seems to be carving out a great niche in something he loves, Sandra Arico is making amazing waves in the world of consulting whilst Ross Hill has become ‘the’ Ross Hill recently with the continued baby steps of Yabble. My question – how do you create that environment? Gladwells book should provide yet more fodder for the brain, but right now do you prefer the young-genius route or the old-master route…and which path are you on?

8 thoughts on “Talent and playing to your strenghts”

  1. Steve,

    Great posting. I love the conversation about the evolving nature of work.

    The idiosyncreasies of talented people often frustrate those who work with them. My observation is that the more extreme the talent, the ‘darker’ the shadow side of that talent. As with many things, it is easier to see in the extreme.

    The point is that I think there is a difference between ‘working on a weakness’ to develop strength, and increasing awareness of weakness in order to mitigate against its impact. Both are valuable.

    It is easy to see it in sport. Learning to lick with my left foot (developing strength in an arena of weakness) can improve my capacity to be flexible and perform at an elite level. The same can apply to psychological preferences and workplace habits. This is subtley different to ensuring that there is an expert left-footer on the other flank.

    But my experienec suggests that it is more difficult to learn new psychological and behavioural habits and competencies than it is physical competencies. So, perhaps the realistic approach in the workplace involves getting a team togther that covers ‘all’ the bases. The problem with most attempts to do this, ending up with mediocrity, is the lack of emotional intelligence to recognise the dynamics of teams with different talents, rather than expecting (unconsciously) that the team is a collection of generalists.

    But I rave …

  2. Hi Col,

    Thanks for the comment, I see what you mean. I love the analogy of the gifted left-footer who a coach may place on a wing (perhaps Stuart Dew and his role in Hawthorns premiership this year serves as a useful analogy?) and the focused training of right-footers to be able to kick with their left foot. John Buchanan famously trained the Australian Cricket team to throw with both hands…but still put Andrew Symonds at cover-point. It illustrates your point around playing to your strengths and training flexibility into your team.

    Gladwell’s new book should be interesting, especially where the idea of the ‘super-talented’ young gun meets that of the ‘superbly trained’ older master.

  3. I find this whole conversation about young geniuses vs old masters incredibly fascinating because it is an interesting parallel, and it fits in with the whole discussion around Gen Y in the workforce up against Babyboomers in particular.

    If we generalize here – as most people seem to do – Gen Y come into the workforce young, bright, vibrant and full of new ideas. They enter a new company and in a short period of time, can see where the cracks are because they are coming in with a fresh perspective and an unhindered, untarnished set of eyes, as well as being quite well-equipped with emergent trends from being so connected to the world of today, particularly through online channels. They want to make changes and can see how things could be done ‘better’. We can call these Gen Y souls the Young Geniuses.

    BabyBoomers have been in the workforce for many, many years, and often in the same company for this long a time period also. They have worked hard to get to where they are and know their company and industry like the back of their own hand. They’ve been through it all and have the wisdom and the relationships that grey hair brings with it. They are proud of the contribution they have made to date, to their company, industry, country, and ultimately want to leave their mark behind on the world. We can call these BabyBoomer souls the Old Masters.

    I guess my view on the growing debate around this is, does there really need to be such a gap between these two types of intelligence in the workforce? And must they be so opposed to each other? I think that both the young geniuses and the old masters in our society have an incredible amount of value to offer each other, and thus ultimately, an organization and industry itself. In essence, it is really about combining the old with the new.

    However, I think a lot of the value in this relationship between old and new, gets lost in the fight for ego and pride. Old masters don’t want to surrender to young geniuses and they can tend to feel somewhat threatened by their ‘pizzazz’ because they know they aren’t as young anymore and can’t necessarily keep up with the ever-fastening pace. Young geniuses generally respond to this with attitude and the view that old masters are just collecting dust in the office. But young geniuses will never be able to compare with old masters in their experiences, their networks and relationship building, and just the breadth and depth of their knowledge across many different areas. So when you look at the diversity of skills and qualities that these two groups can bring to the table, I say, don’t you need both in an organization to succeed and ultimately, to foster innovation?

    I think that many companies really tend to miss this point and that there is generally not enough collaboration between the young geniuses and the old masters. Bringing these two groups closer together instead of continually driving a wedge between them, will command a greater respect between them, and I think ultimately foster a more innovative culture in the workplace, as creativity and innovation often flourish when you put people together of diverse backgrounds and ages.

    So in answer to your question Steve on whether I would prefer to be a young genius or an old master, I think that my answer is ultimately both. I am young now, being 21 years of age and a recent graduate, so I would like to see myself now as being en route to becoming a young genius. However, with time, experience and committing to life learning that can be gained from others’ knowledge and experiences, I hope to one day in the future turn into an old master, and then impart this knowledge onto the young geniuses of that time.

  4. Hey Sandra,

    Great comment – hurry up and get that blog!!!

    I’d only add that not every Gen Y is a young-gun and not every Baby Boomer is an old master, but the idea around of not driving wedges between people who have strived for mastery in their field (10,000 hours) and the young guns looking to shake the game up for all’s advantage is a key challenge for organisations in the future.

    Personally, I hate being targetted as a ‘Gen Y’ as I feel it doesn’t really get me. I share alot of the traits, but I jive more with the thoery of the guys beind NEO Power (great book, terrible title) and Richard Florida.

    I think we form part of the ‘Creative Class’ who troupe around doing great stuff. We have huge downsides too, such as often spending more than we earn and not really having a higher calling, but I think we can navigate those weaknesses between ourselves pretty well.

    Certainly, this last year for me has been one of quite extreme introspection about what makes me, me. Almost like I’ve dropped from the ‘Green’ SDi down into the ‘Red’ zone, rebeling against what I have come to know. I’m still not really up on the SDi stuff, so you’ll have to let me know if I got the terms wrong, but it’s been interesting so far.

    Thanks again for the comment, I can’t wait for Gladwells ‘Outliers’ to hit the shelves!

  5. Steve, I think there’s a link here to the work of Peter Senge. As you know, In the book The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge identifies five core disciplines required of a learning organisation: personal mastery, shared vision, mental models, team learning, and systems thinking.

    For Peter Senge, real learning gets to the heart of what it is to be human. We become able to re-create ourselves. This applies to both individuals and organizations. I would like to equate Personal Mastery with being an ‘Old Master’. According to Senge, Personal mastery is the discipline of continually clarifying and deepening our personal vision, of focusing our energies, of developing patience, and of seeing reality objectively. I’m not saying that you need to be old to achieve Personal Mastery, but to be on the journey of Personal Master will ensure that the young genius does indeed turn into the Old Master.

    So the key for me is how do we ensure that the young genius is on the journey and stays the distance? Here is where the other disciplines come into play. If the young genius is plugged into an organisation or community that operates according to a shared vision, has the capacity to work with mental models, engages in team learning, and has an appreciation of systems thinking … they will be on a life long learning journey and not only can’t fail to contribute to their organisation and society, but will transform into an old master with time.

    OK, so its a bit long winded … in essence what I am saying is that to create the generative environment that you are looking for we need to grapple with how to turn our organisations into learning organisations.

  6. Hey Derek,

    Thanks for tying that into Senge for me. I was trying to get there in my post but my mastery of The 5th Dicsipline is not strong enough to tie the lines together. Thanks for the valuable addition!

    Sandra, there is a heap of stuff in Derek’s comment around how to progress from ‘young gun’ to ‘old master’ and especially in the book The 5th Discipline.

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