Revisiting The Talent Myth

By Ryan Cates,
nGroup VP, National Sales and South East Region

One of my favorite themes in Malcolm Gladwell’s work is his perspective on talent.  Several of his books and essays focus on how we identify talent, how it develops and what it is.  The concepts are worth revisiting as I see a lot of essays, blogs, and articles focused on the theme of how to find and engage the “best talent”.

The first exhibit I submit for consideration is an essay titled “The Talent Myth” written in 2002.   (http://gladwell.com/the-talent-myth/)

For those too busy to read the whole thing, here are some of the highlights…

  • Much of the essay revolves around Enron and their interaction with McKinsey.
  • “The War for Talent”, a term that still gets thrown around today, was coined by McKinsey back in the late 90’s and was based on the idea that the best companies were stuffed with the most talented people.  So, if you wanted to be successful, it was necessary to do whatever it takes to attract the sharpest tacks in the box.
  • The war for talent developed into the “Talent Mindset”, which can be summed up as “I’ve hired the smartest people, I should let them do whatever they want”.  This was a guiding principle at Enron and we all know how that panned out…
  • Studies show that people who believe in malleable intelligence (“I may not be smart but I can become smart”) are more effective than those who believe in fixed intelligence (“I was born smart”).
  • In many cases great systems being run by “average people” will outperform “great talent”.
  • Companies such as Southwest Airlines, Proctor and Gamble, and Wal Mart do quite well without chasing the latest and greatest fresh out of Ivy League MBA programs.
  • They were always around [McKinsey consultants at Enron]. They were there looking for people who had the talent to think outside the box. It never occurred to them that, if everyone had to think outside the box, maybe it was the box that needed fixing.

Just to be clear, I don’t think Malcolm Gladwell would say that talent isn’t valuable. Nor do I.  In certain instances talent can be supremely valuable (i.e. pro sports). However, in most cases, success relies a good and flourishing system and not so much on elusive and expensive genius.