What’s a genius anyway?

Pablo Sarasate (violin virtuoso) stated “A genius!  For 37 years I’ve practiced 14 hours a day, and now they call me a genius” (cited in Simonton, 1999) *.

Last week I wrote a post called ‘Stroke of Genius’ and it attracted a pretty high level of interest. Clearly a popular topic. And many comments I received were along similar lines, mentioning that identifying talent in the first place is often the most difficult challenge faced. I figured that I owed it to myself and readers to address this area in today’s post.

source: blog.kennedyviolins.com

source: blog.kennedyviolins.com

Well, right up front, we need to think about recruitment.

Recruiting talent
Do you know what you are looking for in the first place?

This is not as simple a question as it might first appear. For example, if you are a company, can you answer the following questions?

  • What does the company look like today, and what will it look like in two, three, or four years time?
  • What is the company’s medium to long term strategy?
  • What sort of people will it need to succeed in that strategy? Same as today or very different talent?
  • What sort of roles will be most critical in the future? And how much market demand will there be for those people?
  • What aptitudes will it take to operate in these future positions?

Are the people who are making recruitment decisions and identifying talent sufficiently aware of the future strategic plans for the business? Or are they blindly cultivating talent based on a model of today’s business? That may seem like a no-brainer, but it is certainly worth asking the question. It would be tragic if excellent and expensive recruitment of the ‘wrong people’ were taking place right now, under the noses of the board.

Identifying talent from within
Of course, identifying talent from within is also very important. It may be more cost-effective and successful in the long run. They should after all already have an edge in experience, loyalty, and business knowledge.

Talent is out there all around us – we just need to find it. The problem is do we know what it is we are looking for, and do we know talent when we see it?

Much will depend on what you are looking to identify talent for.

If you are seeking future leaders, people capable of reaching board level and beyond, then you will most likely be looking for qualities in areas such as change management, personal resilience, conflict management and negotiation skills. If you looking to identify world class technical designers, then you may choose to place creativity, innovation, collaboration and technical competence at the top of the list of requirements.

Be absolutely clear on your person specification, capabilities and competences.

Is the organisation about to undergo a radical transformation? If so, ensure that the talent you are identifying, and investing in, will be able to navigate the level of strategic change expected, and be able to bring others with them.  In other words, don’t assume that someone who is thriving in today’s business, will be the best people to take you where you need to get to in the next three to five years.

Who do you trust to identify talent?
Is your management population trained and equipped to identify and develop talent?

If they see this as HR’s job, then you have a management issue that needs to be addressed.  If you have managers who squirrel talent away for their own benefit, and are reluctant to offer people up for the good of the wider organisation, then, again, start working on your management culture.

Do you have good role models in the company already that people can look up to and emulate?  Are the company values sound, and do your leaders and managers live by them, and reward in line with them, consistently?

Do you see examples where what is being rewarded (perhaps not overtly) are things like ‘presenteeism’, being able to dig your way out of crises (rather than avoiding them in the first place), or having a big personality?  Where are the introverts in the organisation contributing?  Is their value being recognised (for an excellent talk on the hidden value of introverts I recommend this TED talk by Susan Cain)?  How diverse is your team or the board?  Watch out that you are not simply getting ‘more of the same’ identified as talent from within.

Identification of talent should be built into ‘business as usual’ processes, but not over-formalised and not quota driven. Some companies ask managers to link it to the annual performance appraisal process (which can make a lot of sense) , but too often this is ruined by a restriction on how many people can be called talent. A sure-fire way to limit ambition and suppress achievement.

What can we learn from sport?
I listened to Clive Woodward, the British Olympic Association’s Director of Elite Performance, speak earlier this year during the build up to the Olympics in London. He made it clear that when it comes to identifying talent it is the ‘teachability’ factor that he watches out for.

Is the person open and receptive to new information? Do they demonstrate a hunger for knowledge? Are they keen to learn?  Assuming he was given a choice between two young people of similar current ability (“raw talent”), Woodward would always select the one with the highest ‘teachability’ factor, even if they currently possessed a lower level of raw talent. This is a better indicator of future success at this stage of a young athlete’s career, he would claim.

I recognise this analogy in the world of business too. People who are hungry, keen, interested, and have a willingness to learn from every situation, are a joy to work with. Another indicator is their active seeking of feedback. Genuine talent does not feel that they ‘know it all’ already. They do not treat feedback at appraisal sessions as a challenge to their ability, but rather as a gift to help them improve.

source: eis2win.co.uk

source: eis2win.co.uk

Another major lesson to be learned in talent identification from sport, is the active way that potential is explored in people who are not currently actively engaged in a given sport.  This  often involves programmes of screening, inviting people to ‘come and have a go’ at a different sport, and actively watching people perform in ‘adjacent’ sports (e.g. could a fast rugby player make it as a sprinter, could a powerful swimmer with ‘long levers’ and large hands make a fantastic rower)?  Approaches like these are becoming common-place in identifying future potential Olympic champions.

Businesses typically recruit and promote in a linear fashion, focusing only on the people who pass through their hands, or apply to join their department, and thereafter fitting them into a pre-defined career framework.  To identify and attract the best talent in the future, how about casting the net wider, actively scouting people in adjacent roles, and inviting people to ‘come and have a go‘?

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. 

Simonton, D.K. (1999). Talent and its development: an emergenic and epigenetic model. Psychological Review. 106, 3, 435-457.


1 thought on “What’s a genius anyway?

  1. Really enjoyed this follow-up post Louis, extending your previous post on genius. Talent is a strange beast and often comes under the scrutiny of marginal decision making in the workplace.

    On the talent front organisations really do need to question what they think they know against an evidence base and if that evidence base does not exist they must pave the way to create it.

    It is also quite surprising how little HR impacts on employee performance in the workplace and how much attention is given to employees by those at the chalk-face, most of whom have little or no tangible people expertise.

    A great deal of challenge is associated with communicating these ideas and they are likely to meet resistance from organisations that fail to learn.

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