Spotting talent that whispers
How do you spot the potential in something that looks ordinary? Fundamentally, it’s a prediction problem. What does potential look like that has not yet come to the surface? The art of identifying the extraordinary (talent that will consistently drive exceptional productivity and give lasting results) is an extremely tough discipline. However, I believe there is an important principle to spot talent that whispers: talent is not about performance. It’s about the story behind the performance and about the barriers of interference factors.
Current performance is not an indicator, but a hypothesis
One of the great misconceptions about talent spotting arises from the believe that current high performance automatically equals great potential and that current average or low performance equals low potential. Current performance can be a good indicator, but I think it’s safer to treat it as a hypothesis: it can be a strong indicator, but that is not always the case (it could, for instance, be a product of luck too). Think about the world of sports: the better an athlete is without having a good training history, the greater the potential that exists.
Finding undervalued talent is to some extent about looking at what people have accomplished in the context in which they accomplished it – rather than simply looking at results. It's about studying the circumstances in which performances are created. In their book ‘The Talent Masters’, Ram Charan and Bill Conaty describe how General Electric’s CEO, Jack Welch, would make a point of giving the highest bonus in the company to a manager who failed to hit his or her targets but who had coped with a highly challenging business environment better than anyone else in the industry. It's a decision driven by the idea that numbers alone do not always reveal reality.
High performance blindness
Consider this equation by Timothy Gallwey, author of ‘The Inner Game of Tennis’: Performance = potential – interference (P = p-i). So “performance” is how well you actually do, “potential” is what you are truly capable of and “interference” refers to the factors that block the release of potential.
That interferences can come in all shapes and forms, including a lack of knowledge, a current bad leader, low confidence, lack of experience, etc. So in an ideal world, in which there were no interference, your performance would be exactly equal to your potential. However, such realities are probably rare. High-performance blindness means that executives may overlook unreleased potential. So the key to getting better at spotting talent lies in eliminating or managing the interference and looking at the full story behind the performance.
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