Talent Trumps All: How Your People Are the Key to Competitive Advantage

IDG associate and former CEO of UK Sport John Steele explains how the talent finding strategies of Olympic sport are highly relevant to successful businesses, and why the ability to “fail well” is vital for high performing teams.

Effective leaders will spend a lot of time reflecting and questioning how they can enhance their organisations performance and really understand what it takes to win in their sector. Be it “the aggregation of marginal gains”, when a number of seemingly insignificant tiny performance gains can collectively give that all important advantage over competitors; or harvesting creative and innovative thinking to produce the next big idea. But there is one card that trumps all when seeking performance excellence and ultimately winning- Talent!

The best strategy, techniques, and equipment count for nothing if the right talent is absent. As leaders we instinctively know this, but too often fail to place the right emphasis on our talent ID, talent confirmation and talent development. The outcome of the playground football game at school was decided long before the first kick, by the ability of the captains to select the right teammates. So why do we so often turn Talent ID into an HR process rather than an essential part of a leaders role? Do we really consider what we want from a particular role or do we recruit in line with policy, and replace vacated roles like for like? How often do we really consider what role we need to serve our future plans as opposed to what we have had in the past? Do we consider the profile of the other team members to identify what type of individual will add the most, or do we recruit in isolation? All questions that need to be considered when shaping a talent plan.

For TeamGB and Paralympics GB, as we head towards the Tokyo cycle and beyond, it is necessary to think carefully about talent pipelines. When competing with countries whose huge talent pools are produced by a population far exceeding our own, to grow medal success we have to think innovatively about talent. It is widely accepted that with the right support a talent pathway for elite Olympic athletes is eight years from talent ID to podium. There are variations within sports and the Paralympic pathways are influenced by very different factors.

Post Athens 2004, the challenge facing the system moving into the Beijing cycle was how to get the right critical mass of talent to feed through to the podium, allowing for the inevitable attrition rates. Is it possible to short circuit an eight year process and identify and develop medal winning athletes quicker than this?

To find athletes that were not currently in the system UKSport and the English Institute of Sport trialled a campaign called “Sporting Giants”, that advertised through major newspapers, with the support of Sir Steve Redgrave, for members of the public to apply if they felt they had the potential to be an Olympian in London 2012. A seemingly bizarre notion, could there be potential Olympic medallists sitting on the sofa at home ready to volunteer? Potentially a ridiculous idea, but the campaign proved a success. After profiling and selection, athletes in three particular sports were identified and some developed into world champions and Olympic medallists. Not a system in itself that could produce all the Olympic or Paralympic talent we require as a nation, but an innovation that compliments an existing system and picks up much needed talent that could have been lost.

Many other campaigns have followed, to address various gaps in the talent system, and have been equally successful. For me it was a lesson in thinking differently about how we find the best talent, and not being afraid to innovate to do this.

Of course one of the joys of sport are the exceptions and the talent that does not conform to profiling.

“According to the theories of aerodynamics, the bumblebee cannot fly because its shape and weight make it impossible in relation to its wingspan.
But the bumblebee, being very ignorant of these truths, DOES FLY….and makes a little honey on the way”

Charlie Walsh, Former National Australian Cycling Coach

If we become too focussed on talent profiling we are at risk of missing the high potential exceptions. A healthy balance is required.

When a system is working the temptation is to stick with it… surely only a fool would tamper with success? But with time the headroom for performance growth reduces until only change will give room for growth. The trick is to change before you have to. This applies to talent management as much as any other area. The need to keep the profile and dynamics of teams fresh, moving people out of roles and bringing in talent at the right time.

Identifying potential is one thing, but knowing how to shape it is quite another. Understanding the characteristics of high performers is essential when we are seeking to confirm and develop talent. Focus, commitment, physical and technical ability, mastery, performing under pressure, would all be high on a list put together by most coaches, but an area less talked about is the ability to fail well.

Failing is clearly not the ultimate goal, but in order to succeed and win consistently you have to learn how to fail. High performing athletes detest losing but understand that it is a source of learning to help them win more. Ed Moses described some of his losses as “champagne moments” because they provided a means to improve. Champions overcome their revulsion of failure, to squeeze every last drop of learning out of it. An inability to admit failure and honestly identify why things went wrong is an obstacle that will prevent athletes and teams becoming the best they can be.

“I’ve failed over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
Michael Jordan

But to lose well also takes resilience. The ability to bounce back from defeat when dreams and aspirations have seemingly been dashed. High performers demonstrate an unerring knack and tenacity to pick themselves up from set backs and refocus quickly. Time spent dwelling on failure and drawn out emotional healing, is time that could be spent on planning and preparing for future success. There is a need to profile our future talent in areas that really matter, such as resilience, performing under pressure and capacity to learn quickly. We see these tested to the full in some parts of the military and sport but too often in industry we are led by bland and process focused recruitment. Take time on talent. It is your greatest opportunity to create an edge over competitors.

Business and much of life is about working out how to improve and progress. We look at so many areas in order to achieve in the world of high performance, but one simple rule is all important -talent trumps all.

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