Gustavo Ballvé on April 15th, 2009
Corporate Strategy, Mental models

The debate on the so-called “ideology of talent” isn’t as clear-cut as Financial Times guest columnist David Bolchover argued. There’s merit in pointing out how a blind “cult” of talent – or at least perceived talent – has led to inadequate incentive structures. However, blaming the financial crisis on this talent chase seems way over the top.

But ultimately that’s not the point: there are positives and negatives that at first seem relatively balanced out. The point is: What is the best way to deal with this in a practical way?

We have given a lot of thought to this – read a lot, discussed a lot – and still see no “perfect” approach. They mentioned Malcolm Gladwell and Jerry Pfeffer, both of whom we’ve read extensively. But framing it in a practical, day-to-day way we end up pinpointing McKinsey itself as kind of a benchmark – cited in the story for its 1998 article called “The War for Talent”. Very strong culture, systematically recruits above-average people, trains them in processes/ systems (brainwashing?), has a relatively collaborative atmosphere, deeply nurtures the relationship with their alumni…

The author mentions some of Gladwell’s and Pfeffer’s points: that “blind faith in ‘talent’ would harm company performance because of its excessive emphasis on individual ‘stars’, and its resulting neglect of other factors such as organisational culture and efficiency.” Practical, balance-wise, that seems to be THE point. We would add to the recipe risk control and something the author mentions in a slightly different context as very relevant: “a culture devoid of self-criticism and self-analysis”. The problem, as usual, are the paradoxes/ dilemmas: for instance, is a “strong culture” almost blind by definition? That’s BEYOND the talent issue. That’s why thinking critically – not buying your own crap – at the top of the company is crucial. The author explores this point in “conformity” and we think it merits more weight in the whole.

Still, Mr. Bolchover’s point that “reverence for the talented” might return to “where it perhaps always belonged – to great sports stars, entrepreneurs and artists” might be a catchy end, but it’s off the mark. We don’t think talented business people deserve less or more praise than an artist or accomplished athlete. We’d rather reverence some Wall Street CEOs than some football players, rockstars, rappers. And we doubt that the highly romanticized and idealized role models of our “sport stars” and “celebrity artists” are better for our youngsters to emulate than some of the leaders of the investment and business community. Even the (also) blindly cherished “entrepreneurs” can easily fall short.

We’d also argue, speculatively, that it’s very, very hard to judge the behavior of people with power. People usually do it looking at their own belly buttons and simplifying the issues and dilemmas the “power people” face in “real life”. Most don’t really have a clue about how things work in high-stakes business or politics, and several would die to get there… But most simply can’t (or assume they can’t). And if they were to “get there”, I really wonder how they would decide and BEHAVE.

P.S.:

The author’s core argument that “It was this culture, legitimised and strengthened by the talent ideology, that sent the global economy spiralling into recession” is the crème-de-la-crème of the article. The set-up of the story leads us to this grand conclusion. Too narrow a view, it seems. But it sells papers. People want single, bold conclusions that relate to what they are experiencing at gut level (in this case readers lost money, jobs, prestige, dignity…).

Related books:

– Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell (Portuguese and English versions)

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