In theory... Talent

Emma De Vita's weekly look at management-speak

When business professionals talk about talent, you can be sure they won't be referring to the latest Pop Idol winner. Yet the parallel worlds of TV talent contests and management strategy are strangely similar: both are about ability, competition and celebrity.

We've all heard of fast-track schemes, and many big companies run such programmes for high-achieving graduates. For their first few years at an organisation, these young, ambitious types are assessed and pushed in the hope that the best will rise to the top of the pile like cream in full-fat milk.

Some hopefuls will sour on the way, but the successful are guaranteed leadership positions at an early age and may one day go for the chief executive officer position. That's where the celebrity comes in, because being a chief executive is the business equivalent of making the cover of OK! magazine.

For many City companies, this strategy works. They want the best talent working for them and will bend over backwards to recruit it. Haven't you heard of the 'talent wars'?

But not everyone agrees that the hothouse environment of 'rank and yank' (get promoted or get out) is a good thing for business. In a 2002 article for The New Yorker headlined 'The Talent Myth', Malcolm Gladwell, a journalist and author of the bestselling book Blink, highlighted the numerous faults with talent management programmes. He blamed the downfall of American energy giant Enron on its culture of forcing over-inflated individuals up the greasy pole without the requisite experience or wisdom. Gladwell said it was much better to let people grow into their roles, make mistakes and earn promotions in due course.

And remember, too much talent can be a bad thing. After all, how many Will Youngs does an organisation need? The complaint of too many cooks is a common one. Instead of focusing on the talented, perhaps we would do well to nurture the plodders instead.

- Emma De Vita is a senior section editor on Management Today.

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