Stroke of Genius

I was intrigued by an article I read this week on 5 Reasons Your Top Employee Isn’t Happy. It got me thinking about how we manage talent.  And maybe there lies the problem – in that very word ‘manage’.  Talent is a precious thing, but should it be given ‘maverick status’ or does it need to be controlled?  Well, I guess the answer might well vary depending on the culture of the company, what period in the company’s development you are at, or what sort of leader you are?



I immediately thought about the football team analogy. I have played and watched football over more years than I care to remember, and the recurring debate about how teams should accommodate rare talent just never goes away.  What I have seen,  is that teams who are riding on the crest of a wave, winning everything in sight, and blowing the opposition away, can often afford the ‘luxury’ of the occasional ‘maverick’ or ‘outlier’.  Often described as a genius, these players entertain the crowds and keep the sports (and sometimes front-page) writers happy.

But, when the going gets tough, everyone is expected to put in a shift. Sulking on the wings with your hands on hips, complaining about not getting good service, doesn’t go down well – not with the crowd (or shareholders), team mates (or work colleagues) or coach (boss).

It’s a big issue for companies too. When someone is bestowed the title talent (or genius) – what is expected of them and of others?  Are they to be lauded and treated differently?  Do managers become fearful of losing them (perhaps to a rival company – perhaps even to another part of the same company)?  Should we expect the same commitment and application from them as everyone else? As in football, it will depend on where the company is at, both culturally and developmentally.   Start-ups are often hugely dependent on the creativity and innovative thinking of talented and driven individuals.  These people may hang around long enough to see the fledgling company through the early years, but start to become bored by the workings of the enterprise scale operation.  They typically hand over the reins of the more ‘operational’ activities to someone better equipped to do that job, allowing them to move on to the next big idea.

As with anything precious, making sure you nurture and develop talent is paramount, and always in the right direction. Leaders need to be clear about what it is that has marked them out, and find out what it is that they recognise in themselves that they feel needs to be expressed. There is nothing more disheartening than to see talent being identified, only to see it being squeezed through a ‘one-size-fits-all’ talent programme.

  • Encourage your talented people to see the big picture.  This way they will be even more powerful.  While they may be content to delve down and go deeper into problem solving, their effectiveness can be expanded beyond limited boundaries by exposure to wider horizons. 
  • Don’t let your talent be strangled by internal politics and self-interest. Use your talented people for the good of the whole business. This might mean moving them round, giving them exposure to different areas. Watch out for managers along the way getting too reliant and possessive, and putting obstacles in the way of them moving on or being shared.
  • Watch out for your talent becoming ‘prima donnas’.  Like the football stars who often lose touch with reality, and are unwilling to do the ‘dirty work’ when the team’s backs are up against the wall, talent that is not made to feel part of the team, that does not share in the vision and goals, may feel they can stand on the sidelines shaking their head at the mess the rest of the team have got themselves into. 
  • Avoid squeezing your talent into pre-defined roles that strangle their innovation.  Corporations can be over-obsessed with ensuring people follow particular career paths, and assuming these are the only ways to achieve a successful career. You may have to construct a totally new role to accommodate talent and ensure you get the best from them. I liken this to the best football coaches being able to adapt their team system and formation to permit the talented player to have a roving role that makes the most of their skills. Nothing frustrates talented players more than ‘shoe-horning’ them into a rigid team formation, stifling their ability to express themselves and expecting them to work within strictly defined structures. 
  • Always look for ways to stretch and challenge talent to avoid them becoming bored. Bored talent will soon look elsewhere for their stimulation, so ensure they have the ability to work on multiple projects. 
  • Reward your talented people appropriately.  What is the market paying?  What would it cost to recruit and train someone else to reach the same level of effectiveness, should they up and leave?  Is the reward commensurate with the contribution they are making to the company’s success, or are they stuck in a pay structure that does not have the ability to recognise extraordinary contribution?  
  • Avoid organisational friction. Watch out for talent that is ineffective at bringing other people with them, or is dismissive of people who they deem to be ‘not as smart’. Nobody survives on their own, and the best talent is sensitive to the needs of others.  Identify any potential difficulty such as this early, and do something about it, for the good of everyone. 
  • Encourage knowledge sharing and collaboration. Provide opportunities for talent to be shadowed and for them to mentor other high potential people. Develop a pipeline of talent and a knowledge base of intelligence, so that you are not over-exposed by the risk of sudden departures.   


We may be in a period where our teams are digging in, with backs to the wall and riding out the recession. There may be a distinct absence of flair on the field of play, but that is the very time that we need match winners. Football teams need a stroke of genius for someone to make the vital pass or score the decisive goal. Leaders in our companies and organisations are no different. They too need someone who can see the pass that others cannot see.  They need different thinking, creative insights and people who dare to dream big.  The leader’s role is to nurture and cultivate the talent that is out there, blending it skillfully with the rest of the team, and encouraging the creation of opportunities for strokes of genius that will carve out the winning goals.

If you would like to explore ways to maximise your effectiveness as a leader, to help you get the most from your talented people, or to further develop the leadership skills of your teams, do please get in touch. Simply send your details through the Contact Us page. I will be delighted to discuss further with you. 


6 thoughts on “Stroke of Genius

  1. Louis, this is a great insight, thanks for sharing. I still have your depiction of the ‘spark of genius’ firmly rooted in my mind. I suppose ‘talent’ stands out like a sore thumb within an organisation, but there is a difficulty in establishing how the individual has come to be talented. Wherever possible, organisations will look to replicate success on an individual level, but the reality is quite different. A good example of his lies in succession planning, how could Apple possibly find an apt or equivalent replacement for Steve Jobs?

    The mechanics of talent management are important as you rightly point out. In this specific area organisations are better at looking after talent once capability has been demonstrated. Unfortunately, the process of ‘seeing the talent’ presents a conundrum, unlike the observable world of football. For example, the standard cv, references and interview do not lend themselves well to making good pre-employment talent decisions. If the candidate plays a blinder, just like George Best, maybe they will be hired, but they could have played the game of their life on just a couple of occasions.

    Nonetheless, the patterns of the football genius are well established and the genius player’s tantrums and lack of effort on behalf of the team represent an interesting anomaly. When I looked at individual event performance during the Olympics it was surprising to discover that an exceptional performer improved the outcomes of his or her same-nation colleagues.

    Is it possible that the exceptional performer improves or stretches team performance by example? If so, should the exceptional individual rally to help those who are struggling, or should those who are struggling improve their performance to facilitate the individual who can make the difference. An intriguing dilemma.

    • Thanks for the comments Mark. Clearly a complex and fascinating area. I will aim to say more on this in my next post – probably more on the talent identification part of the challenge. I love your final question? Going back to the football analogy, I think it would depend on the ‘match situation’. I can imagine moments in certain matches, where the coach would encourage players to support the talented individual (by passing the ball to them as often as possible) as they would be seen as the potential match winner. However, if the team was up against it, and the talented individual was required to support the defence and ‘put in a shift’, then I think there is something to be gained for the whole team if they see that player being prepared to do just that.

      • Thanks Louis. That final point is an interesting one. I am also thinking of the conservation of resources. Depending on the score. If the match winner needs to put in a defensive shift and his team are loosing the physical resources of the player are being spent in the wrong direction.

  2. Some good thoughts Louis and the football analogy worked for me. I found myself wondering about who has the responsibility for managing talent in the first place? It makes sense for the manager to take an overview – and what about the rest of the team?

  3. Pingback: What’s a genius anyway? | Gyro Consulting Services

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