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Creating a New Talent Narrative

Thursday, September 12, 2013

I bet you thought “talent” equals “high performance.” That’s a flawed assumption…but you’re not alone in such thinking.

When we encounter true talent—the musical prodigy, the athletic wunderkind, the business genius—we are awed. How do they do it? We think to ourselves, “If only I had been born with those gifts, I would be a star, too.”

We all labor under the assumption that there is a defined and limited supply of talent (innate ability) and that only a few individuals have what it takes to become true stars in their professions. While this assumption may hold some validity for Olympic-level athletes and top-tier entertainers, the flaws of applying such a broad assumption to the workplace are easy to identify.

For example, most of us still buy into the assumption that our success (the organization’s and our own) is wholly dependent on how many high-performing stars we are able to hire and retain. We search frantically for these extraordinary individuals (we even call this search the “war for talent”), and then rely on this limited number of star performers to drive the success of the entire team.


How about stepping back from this assumption long enough to test a researched alternative. Let’s test the assumption that an organization’s talent curve does not predetermine its performance curve. At Exemplary Performance, our experience with multiple clients in disparate industries shows that it is possible to replicate the results of your stars without replicating their innate talent and ability.

Perhaps you're saying, "Timeout! Are you telling me that I can succeed with people who are not talented?” Not at all. What I’m saying is this: The exceptional results that are consistently produced by your exemplary performers are not dependent on talent alone. Talent explains some of the results produced by these high-performing individuals, but it is not the whole story. Let’s fill the significant gaps in the old talent-centric narrative and create a new narrative that leads to a much higher portion of the workforce producing exceptional results. Let’s leverage these blog articles to produce more high performers within your current workforce—sooner, rather than later.

Geoff Colvin, in his book, Talent is Overrated (Geoff Colvin, New York: Portfolio, 2008), makes the following points based on his synthesis of years of research:

  • Talent (innate ability) does not account for the performance variance seen in music, athletics, or business.
  • Intelligence and memory do not account for talent, either.
  • Deliberate practice is the single largest contributor to exemplary performance.

Look at the list of star performers you made the other day. In the comment section below, describe what “talents” you think these star performers have that differentiate them from others in your organization. What makes these employees different? You may find others sharing some of the same attributes—or maybe not!

For more on how to shift the performance curve, check out Paul’s previous blog article in this series

About the Author
Paul H. Elliott, PhD, is president of Exemplary Performance LLC based in Annapolis, Maryland. Dr. Elliott’s expertise is in the analysis of human performance, the design of interventions that optimize human performance in support of business goals, and strategies for transitioning from training to performance models. Dr. Elliott assists organizations in performance analysis, instructional design, product and process launch support, design of advanced training systems, and the design and implementation of integrated performance interventions. Co-author of Exemplary Performance: Driving Business Results by Benchmarking Your Star Performers (Jossey-Bass, March 2013), Dr. Elliott offers business leaders, human resources professionals, and organization development practitioners the tools and processes to identify star performers, capture the high performance attributes of these employees, and disseminate this valuable information throughout the organization.
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