Sporting success provides a model for career success

The BBC Sports Personality of the Year 2012 awards were screened last night, and after the absolutely exceptional sporting year we have had in Great Britain, it was sure to be a close contest. In the event, it was won by Bradley Wiggins, followed by Jessica Ennis and Andy Murray – but the final result (decided by a public telephone vote) seemed largely academic in comparison to their sporting achievements earlier in the year.BradleyWiggins_SPOTY2012[Photo courtesy of BBC]

I couldn’t help but notice the parallel with career success, particularly with students (graduates and school-leavers) who are taking the first steps in their working lives. Continue reading

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Hmmm… Britain’s Got “Talent”

By complete coincidence the very day after my last post, on Hidden (collective) talent, I heard the results of the Britain’s Got Talent competition final, which was won by Ashleigh Butler and her dog Pudsey.  Between them, the duo netted prize money of half a million pounds, and it is easy to imagine even that vast sum being eventually be dwarfed by sponsorship deals over the coming year.

It is not completely clear whether the talent lies with Pudsey (for his unusual dancing abilities) or Miss Butler (for her ability to train the dog).  Either way, the contrast with the talent uncovered in James Whinnery could hardly be starker.  Certainly there are commercial realities involved, but even taking this into consideration, it makes me question what value we place on talent – and actually what we really mean by “talent”.

The Hidden Talent show didn’t appear to be a big budget production.  There was no prize money on the table.  There was no big pay day for the experts involved in developing the latent talent in James – they did it because they love to discover and develop talent. James has clearly gained a great deal personally; viewers of the programme will have derived enjoyment from it, and the experts will have too.

By contrast, Britain’s Got Talent was very much a big budget operation.  The prize money was very significant.  The “experts” (or judges) who selected the winners in each round weren’t doing it for altruistic reasons (rumoured figures vary wildly, but the general consensus seems to be that Simon Cowell earns £20 million for the series, with each of the other judges earning around £200,000).  The winner gained through the prize money, the future value of sponsorships etc.; and as with Hidden Talent, viewers of the programme will have derived enjoyment from it too.

As said, commercial realities cannot be ignored, but somehow this just seems plain wrong.  One could argue all day about the relative entertainment value of a dancing dog, compared to that of discovering latent linguistic talent.  But the point here is that the money seems to be going to the wrong people.  When a dancing dog wins a talent competition, it reminds us that we all enjoy being entertained.  But surely, when set alongside something more worthy, the comparison speaks volumes about what we value.

When there is so much valuable potential in the world, it seems somehow wrong that we can’t see big entertainment value in worthy causes, and that we should therefore give such prominence to trivial and shallow pursuits.

Hidden (collective) talent

The latest much-talked-about show on UK television is Hidden Talent (a Silver River production for Channel 4, sponsored by American Express).

In Episdode 3, 19-year old James Whinnery emerges from a battery of aptitude test undertaken by a large group of participants, appearing to have a particular talent for languages.  The show followed his journey from having absolutely no language qualifications to the point where he appeared on Jordanian television, fluent in Arabic 19 weeks later.  It was all the more fascinating since James was a down-to-earth, likeable character who hadn’t had the best start in life, and was an A-level drop-out who was living in a hostel for the homeless.

Whilst it was utterly compelling viewing, it was hardly surprising – after all, we know from past experience that many people have hidden talents.  And when those talents finally emerge from the “right people”, we are humbled and delighted.  What makes this series so interesting though, is the process by which the talents are uncovered.  The initial group of 900 participants took a series of aptitude tests, each of which had been carefully designed to identify specific talent potential.  James Whinnery performed particularly well in the Modern Language Aptitude Test (MLAT) which has been demonstrated to be an effective predictor of such talent.  Identifying and nurturing talent are, of course, two completely different steps, and James was lucky that not only was his surprising talent identified, but that there was sufficient motivation from him, and resource available from others, to nurture his incredible talent.

Can similar tests uncover hidden collective talent, and could they be applied in organisations to deliver exceptional results?  There are notable examples of what a group can do collectively – the rescue of Apollo 13, Mars Rovers, Concorde are obious examples – but are these the result of hidden collective talent emerging, or are they a potent combination of sheer hard work, huge resources and a large dose of luck?  Even though Gene Kranz never actually uttered the words “Failure is not an option“, and unpalatable though it was, it was surely the most likely of all the options.  The collective talent which saved the mission was not hidden, only emerging during the crisis – actually quite the opposite.  The eventual outcome was exactly what had become expected by the public who had become accustomed to witnessing great things from an extraordinary bunch of people.  Yes, for sure, there was delight and relief.  But surprise?  No, none – it wasn’t a surprise.

Personality type indicators such as MBTI and Belbin can be used to distinguish between different behaviours in individuals, and knowing this for each member of a team can sometimes be an indicator of how a team is likely to behave.  But this is very different from an aptitude test which detects hiddent talent within a team.

There are no doubt examples in organisations, where exceptional results have been delivered by teams to their great surprise.  Perhaps the results are only surprising because the initial challenge was so far outside the team’s normal remit that it was always inherently infeasible.  Such challenges are often delivered by inspiring leaders who can sense hidden collective talent.  Is there another mechanism for identifying hidden collective talent, or must we rely on those inspiring leaders?

By contrast, when leaders who are dictators, tyrants or bullies demand exceptional results, success or failure follow the deployment of massive brute force and huge resources – an effect which is altogether different.

James Whinnery demonstrated that once his talent had been identified, the nurturing of those talents could follow “standard procedures”.

If we could somehow identify hidden collective talent without recourse to the all-too-rare inspiring leaders, perhaps “standard procedures” for nurturing the team’s collective talent would deliver exceptional results?