Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Talent Saga

I have just incorporated a company with Talent Management in its name, and almost immediately, Barclays announced a huge bonus for its 'talent' amid a huge public uproar. What's worse, talent's poster boys, footballers in English Premier League, are kind of having a nasty time. You sure love John Terry as a footballer, though he looks older than his 29 years, but when you look at his conduct - sleeping with his best mate's girlfriend behind his back and chasing any busty girl around him despite being safely married to his childhood sweetheart, you wouldn't want to be him. Even worse is Ashley Cole, who is married to splendid Cheryl, who seems to be one of the best known WAGs in England anyway, who would cheat, lie, cheat, get caught and will almost surely cheat and lie yet again.

I am all too aware of the usual argument. Don't try to meet the author whose novels you love! Because people are different in their private lives. They ought to be, it is their private life. Besides, it was always so. For example, Paul Johnson's The Intellectuals makes a cynical, yet eye-opening reading. That's about crossing boundaries of public and private. I remember reading the book left me in a state of shock from which I never fully recovered. Why? For example, it was difficult for me to reconcile Marx, the writer of such beautiful prose who wrote with so much power and sensitivity for the downtrodden, with his private self: a torturer of his beautiful and dedicated wife, a man who fathered children but took none of their responsibilities and who, allegedly, fathered a child of his maid, only to be saved from the scandal by his dear friend and provider in chief, Frederick Engels.

In fact, Marx was a classical case. He was very certain of his talents from an early age. He knew that he would change the world, and talked and behaved the same way. He was brilliant, possibly the best journalist in the history of writing, who wrote with passion about his subjects and understood, more deeply than any of his contemporaries, the social forces at work. But, he was also the egoist supreme, demanding attention wherever he went, venting anger whoever disagreed with him and pushing his invectives to such extreme to paint everyone who dared to raise a dissenting point as the worst of class enemies. Marx indeed changed human thought and left a deep impression on our society; but his thoughts, so far, failed to deliver the freedom that he promised to bring about. There are many reasons for this, but in a sense, his personality was one of them. Many of his followers lived a life of hatred and anger, and instead of seeking reconciliation and sociability, they wanted notoriety and fear. The great anathema for socialist movements since Marx was its divisions, intolerance and intellectual skulduggery, all the style issues, it can be claimed with reason, inherited directly from the person of Marx.

What I am preaching here is not a sort of deterministic view that Marx's traits have to affect a socialist and this will lead to their undoing; the point I am trying to make is that personal lives of stars are not wholly irrelevant. This is because practise of many professions, particularly sports, is a social activity. John Terry gets paid so much not because he has particular skills of heading a leather ball, but because his skills are seen as a benchmark of athleticism in the society and his persona is seen as a benchmark by so many youngsters. His scandals most likely to have an unexpected effect: Many people will decide that it is actually okay to sleep with your best pal's girlfriend as long as tabloids don't get the wind of it. Or, it will be okay to be like Ashley Cole - when your wife is becoming so successful and dazzling the TV, you better chase a few pretty girls who will give everything to sleep with you. If I daresay, like Marx created the subconscious of those who were to come after him, Terry and Ashley Cole are also doing their bit to shape the future of British society.

And, that, I shall argue is the precise problem with Talent. I know the key metaphor of this whole discipline of talent management is that you are building a football team and you need some stars, those who make the real difference, and you must treat them differently from mere mortals. You must go the extra mile to retain them, give them an out of proportion bonus, pamper them, give them those extra holidays and prize trips abroad and all that. The problem is that this is all very narrow, and business is not a football pitch.

To start with, a business runs 24x7 and require a multidimensional engagement with a very diverse audience, while a footballer only have to display one skill very well for a relatively short period of time. And, he has to do it in a condition where rules are set and the challenges, as in the opposition, are mostly known. Ashley Cole's texting habits will not undermine his ability to make those brilliant runs along the left wing, but a racist Vice President can very well make profits in trading but destroy the company at the same time.

Business is less like a football pitch, and more like, I would like to think, a family. I say a family though I know those days of permanent identities are gone. But, businesses are more closely knit than building societies if you care to think, because the financial prospect of all its members remains interrelated in a business. While you are not born into a business and hopefully not die in one, it gives you an identity around the middle of your life, which, in the modern world, is almost as important as your family name, or if you are a commoner, more important. So, you belong to a business, even if for a time, and this belongingness is deeper than a club membership or residency in a gated community.

In this sense, talent in business must be seen in a different context. I still believe talent is a valid word - which denotes individual excellence - but I think viewing talent management as in the context of management of stars is wrong. I would propose a different perspective and say everyone has a talent. Of varying types and intensity, but every individual is capable of achieving individual excellence if offered the right support. Businesses need to manage talent, but that does neither mean a bonus culture nor an elitist closed group, but, like a family, acceptance of the universality of talent and stitching a strategy together to bring out the very best of people.

I know I am sounding really old-fashioned, and worse, idealistic, here, but remember the world's most talent dependent companies are usually found in rather non-obvious places. Education, for example, I would think is one of industries most dependent on individual excellence. So is hospitality, healthcare, transportation and industries where customer contact points are diverse and complex, and processes have little control over the moment when the actual value is generated. I would like to think software, but its a lot more process driven than people would like to talk about; so are banks and insurance companies, where lots of talent resides in computer programmes and models. I am not undermining the brilliance of mind that is required to do any of those work; but I beg to differ from the conventional view that it takes more mental ability to predict the future of a particular stock than figuring out, during the late night hours in a hotel reception, which customer really had a heart attack and which one has drunk little too much Whiskey. The nurse who saves a life, the teacher who inspires a kid for a lifetime - are doing what only individuals with a deep and abiding commitment to excellence can do.

Pity that our narrow view of talent management does not take those sorts of talents into consideration, and we, as a society, remain locked in the worship of false heroes.

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