Stop fretting about hiring the best, start living with reality

There are few truly exceptional people, and just as few truly awful ones
By Adrian Savage
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 12/10/2003


orth American HR managers have made two broad assumptions about talent, and both are wrong. First, they overestimate the impact talented people have on performance. The second myth is that there is a growing shortage of talent. These misconceptions feed off each other.

If having talented people is essential to corporate growth and supply is short, exceptional measures are clearly justified. But what if neither statement is correct?

Don’t get me wrong. Talented people are valuable to any organization, but a few moments’ thought will add some important modifiers to this statement. First, the so-called “war for talent” is a mirage. Over the last two or three years, tens of thousands of people in the U.S. and Canada have lost their jobs through no fault of their own. Employers are, in fact, facing a greater supply than they have for many years.

Regarding the other point, even the most talented person cannot transform a messed-up, misaligned organization. Remember those high-profile CEOs some years ago who were paid mega-millions to single-handedly produce double-digit growth? How many achieved it? And how many got fired for failing?

Organizations are groups of interlocking systems, populated by people. That’s all they are. Unless the systems are changed, the most talented and charismatic person will have almost no impact on what happens in an organization. To succeed, you need a group of dedicated leaders working together, first using the systems already in place, and then changing those systems.

Part of the problem lies in the notion that what is required is exceptional talent. There are few truly exceptional people, and just as few truly awful ones. Most are somewhere in between. Forget trying to find semi-mythical creatures with amazing powers – forget trying to find unicorns.

But suppose an organization gets lucky and finds a unicorn. They usually don’t know what to do with it. They take it and harness it to a cart – then wonder why it doesn’t do very well.

Organizations say they want outstandingly creative, energetic and innovative people. These people are difficult. They’re demanding. They’re very clever and they know it. They shake things up. They’re unruly and tell their bosses they can do the job better than their superiors — and they’re pretty much right.

Most organizations can’t swallow unicorns. That’s why such people usually start their own businesses or stay outside the corporate world altogether.

The talent myth urges employers to focus on the wrong things. Don’t hire unicorns unless you can use them. If you can’t they’ll be miserable and they won’t stay. A clever, frustrated person causes more mayhem than an average person.

By acting as if the organization’s future depends on a tiny number of unicorns, we’re taking enormous risks. They don’t exist in anything like the numbers needed. It’s a hopeless quest.

The talent pool is deep, but it’s filled with ordinary people. Use them well and no one need worry about unicorns.

Of course highly talented people make a difference. It’s just not going to be that big a difference unless the organizational structure allows it to happen.

People don’t take a systemic view of the organization. They work on the product strategy, the marketing strategy, how they handle production and how to deal with the competition. It all matters. But it all interacts. Taking each part in isolation falsifies the reality of the situation.

Alignment is crucial. If organizational systems aren’t aligned with the people who work within them, you’ll get poor performance from everyone, regardless of their talent.

But organizations that create alignment between the people they have and the strategies they want to carry out will get spectacular results. All that’s needed is intelligence and the patience to get the structure aligned before starting.

What matters in organizational success is how well the vast bulk of ordinary people are utilized, since that is who will always be in greatest abundance.

Figure out how to get extraordinary results with ordinary people and you’ll wipe the competition out.

Adrian Savage is president of PNA, Incorporated, which provides Web-based data collection and analysis services for organizations.

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