Craig Dearden-Phillips: Talent is overrated in the sector

Overflowing confidence and an Oxbridge education are highly prized, says our columnist, but better results often come from those with the right attitude and a compulsion to deliver

Craig Dearden-Phillips
Craig Dearden-Phillips

All my life, I have had a funny relationship with sport. I have always played it but, in truth, never very well. Despite both parents being accomplished, I never got the gene; I have always been an effortful, though essentially incapable sportsperson.

Why am I telling you this? Partly because I have been enviously watching the British Open and seeing the super-talented make it all look really easy, but also because I believe in application over talent. In some respects, I am glad that while I didn't get the sports gene, I did get the one with the code that reads "prove to them you're good enough". I say this not to boast, but to say that I did quite well on not a lot of talent.

The same goes for me with work. I am well within the normal range in most areas, but I diligently polish the tiny bit of silver I've been handed, whether it's turning myself into a passable public speaker or a writer of columns for Third Sector.

Which brings me to my subject today: talent. I hear a lot of nonsense talked about this in our sector. The consultancy firm McKinsey & Company started it with the so-called War For Talent - a paper it published way back that basically said there's only a little bit of talent about and organisations should kill to get hold of it. By talent, it meant naturally super-performing people, most of whom happen, it seems, to have overflowing self-confidence and an Oxbridge education - the people already running the show. Not folks like me - or you, probably.

I think this sort of talent is grossly over-rated in all sectors, including our own. What isn't sufficiently rated is what I will simply call the right attitude: people with a compulsion to deliver, who, by sheer effort of will, get themselves up to a performing level are, in my reckoning, worth a lot more than the naturally brilliant.

In my life as a chief executive, I've met loads of born-supersonic people who didn't do very well, either in work or life. They always sounded good - that's easy when you give off confidence - but, on cool reflection, were total non-achievers. In truth, they were lazy or wasted their gifts by not giving enough of themselves.

So would I not rather have a team of Derby winners in my organisation than a bunch of earnest nags, I hear you ask? Doesn't true success require both talent and effort?

Ideally, yes - you need both. But I haven't met many thoroughbreds who aren't also draining to manage, and who are willing to give you years of their lives before they head off for new challenges. Talent is often thinking of the next thing, not what it is doing now.

So you can keep your talent. Give me an honest scrapper or grafter; someone who knows they have to prove themself. A person who understands that it takes five years to achieve anything worth writing home about. They are nearly always the better bet as an employee or business partner. These are the people our sector needs now. Contact Craig at

Craig Dearden-Phillips is chief executive of Stepping Out and a Liberal Democrat councillor in Suffolk

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