A better way to identify and develop talented people

Identifying talent

A flawed approach to identifying talent

One of the biggest tragedies of modern management is our approach to finding and developing talented people.

For recruiting, we use top schools and other brokers to identify the talent for us. For people already inside the firm, we construct elaborate talent management systems and leadership development programs. These methods, which focus on the few and neglect the many, are extraordinarily ineffective and, worse, they’re actively harming firms and their people.

There’s a better way.

What do you expect?

We tend to treat talent as something innate, something a rare few possess. We create all sorts of filters to spot those with high potential and then do special things to retain and develop those people. Identifying potential in others seems one of the basic responsibilities of management.

Everybody does it – schools, the military, corporations. But studies have shown “potential” isn’t as innate as we think. And, in “Give and Take” , Adam Grant summarizes some surprising research.

The classic study, in 1966, was done in schools. Teachers were given names of students who “had shown the potential for intellectual blooming”. Unbeknownst to the teachers, the experimenters had chosen the students randomly. And, yet, the “bloomers” did indeed score better over time on IQ tests in the following years – by an average of 15 points in the first year and 10 points in the second grade.


“Teachers’ beliefs created self-fulfilling prophecies. When teachers believed their student were bloomers, they…engaged in more supportive behaviors that boosted the students’ confidence and enhanced their learning and development. Teachers communicated more warmly to the bloomers, gave them more challenging assignments, called on them more often, and provided them with more feedback.”

In the 1980s, researchers discovered similar effects in the Israeli Defense Forces when trainees were randomly selected as “high-potential”. In 2000, in a meta-review of 17 studies in industries from banking to retail sales to manufacturing, researchers again found the same effects:

“Overall, when managers were randomly assigned to see employees as bloomers, employees bloomed.”

A better way to find talented people

In a previous post, I told the story of Jordi Munoz who, who grew up in Tijuana and, despite lacking a college degree or other traditional credentials, went on to become CEO of a robotics company at age 24. The person who hired Jordi was Chris Anderson, the founder and former editor of Wired magazine. He found Jordi through an online robotics community where Jordi was an active member. There, Chris could see his work, see public feedback from others, and could even collaborate with him all before ever speaking with him.

In Chris’ book “Makers”, he pointed out how he never would have found such talent if he looked in the traditional places.

“Why wouldn’t you start a company with people with whom you were already working well, who had already proven their mettle? It seems so much riskier to take a flier on someone you don’t know, just because that person has a degree from a good school.

This is the Long Tail of talent. The web allows people to to show what they can do, regardless of their education and credentials. It allows groups to form and work together easily…”

The reason Chris didn’t need to limit himself and rely on MIT or Berkeley to find talent for him is that Jordi (and all of us) now have platforms where we can make our work visible and discoverable and, importantly, where other experts can provide feedback on it. Through his contributions in the online community, Jordi was able to let his work speak for itself without the need for a broker.

A better way to develop talent 

Inside firms, we can do the same thing: creating environments where people can make their work visible and discoverable.

The idea of a group of managers sitting in a room and deciding who has potential or who’s talented is grossly flawed. It’s based on relationships and similarities more than merit. And, as the studies above show, there’s no evidence that any positive results (if they’re even tracked) are anything but self-fulfilling prophecies.

Think of the kids in that 1966 study. Picture the lucky random few who, when deemed “high-potential”, excelled. And picture the remaining 80% who, through no fault of their own, never got the “more supportive behaviors that boosted the students’ confidence and enhanced their learning and development”.

That’s what we’re doing at work. It’s bad for individuals and it’s bad for business.

And it’s time for smart managers to stop doing stupid things. Stop labeling a few people as having potential, developing them, and telling the rest not to bother. Instead, start viewing 100% of the people as having potential. (The randomness in the studies proves that’s largely true.) And start viewing your job as creating environments where anyone can contribute and learn, where anyone can become talented, and where anyone realize their potential.

About John Stepper

Helping organizations create a more collaborative culture – and helping individuals access a better career and life – by spreading the practice of Working Out Loud.
This entry was posted in Management, Social Business and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to A better way to identify and develop talented people

  1. Great post as always.

    Do people in an organization *need* a manager to identify and develop their potential, or can one proactively take the reins, and get the support and infrastructure they need from their colleagues (manager or otherwise) to develop themselves?

  2. Will be coming back to your blog more often. Very insightful thoughts.

  3. John says:

    Another spot on post John! I think part of the problem is the CFO’s/COO’s continue to push managers to grade on the curve. Only 5% of employees can have potential and 5% must be ushered out with the other 90% somewhere in between. If organizations helped every employee increase skills, abiliities and output the entire organization and client base benefits and not just the 5%.

  4. Another great post John, on a tough issue businesses are facing all over. The talent pool in any business is far greater than most people will ever realize. The problem is that most managers and executives ignore those people under their very noses because they are just not what they like. I found out years ago some of my best and most skilled people were in fact People i did not really like, but I could respect them for their abilities. Unfortunately that is very rare among managers, instead they promote and develp weaker people they like. I would have done the samething early on, the only reason I did not was the company owner challenged me to find the diamonds in the rough and tunr them into shining gem, and my ego made me actually do it.

    To identify and develop the diamonds in the rough takes a little extra time after all you really have to get to know everyone that works for you, but once you do it it gets hard to stop because your results are just that much better.

    I will add one point in answer to another comment, if your boss does not work to develop you, the odds on them ever noticing that you are doing it on your own is almost zero, after all they already branded you a none performer, and they hate to get proven wrong.

  5. Mette Bagge-Petersen says:

    If you like this, may I recommend Rasmus Ankersen @ http://www.thegoldmineeffect.com. Enjoy the little video on how to find talent.

  6. Mark T. Kennedy says:

    my favorite jaime escalante quote (i would have *paid* to meet him) was this: “People rise to the level of expectations you set for them.”

  7. Irene says:

    Thank you. This is particulary meaningful for me. I’ve known this since I was six. Really. I was pointed up as one of the “talented” ones, but I knew everyone around me was just as talented. How did I know? Simply because it was the truth, and it was obvious, to a six year old open mind. Finally something that backs me up! It’s like I’ve been responding to “sure, right” all these years. I’ve watched too many talents retreat into the background and disappear over the years, in music, in business, in life. I’ve always tried to bolster the musical in people, and encouraged people to find their talents, whatever they are, but it’s always been an uphill battle. I get why now, more than ever. And I still believe the same thing I did when I was six. As a new “Lean facilitator”, using a new online company collaboration tool, I hope I can put more punch behind that now. Thanks again for all your inspiration.

  8. Some people I’ve read believe MOOCs can provide environments in which to identify talented individuals.

  9. Marie-Louise Collard says:

    Great piece John and as usual full of thought provoking issues that inspire questions..

    Does everyone with potential have talent or does every person with a talent have the potential to turn it into success?
    What is talent? Business acumen? High sales record? Accounting capability?
    Or leadership? – What do business leaders want the talent to do? -the next leaders of a particular business pure and simple – or creative innovators?

    AT the end of the day “potential” holds more promise– talent is arbitrary – you can be born with a particular and natural skill (by definition that’s what talent is) – but can its potential be nurtured successfully and for what purpose? The studies you quote demonstrate perfectly how potential in a random sample can be nurtured to suit expectation– but not how to identify a talent in the true sense of the word.

    As you so accurately point out managers should be creating environments to nuture all “potential” not just spot the talent that they think will suit their business purpose – and discard the rest. At the same time we can’t discard the existence of talent. Should there not be scope for both?
    Should we also make sure that there is more transparency in leadership and talent programmes to show what criteria are being used to select and nurture that potential if that is the chosen course?

    Thank you for making me think so hard! 🙂

  10. Pingback: “Everybody” Is The New “High Potential” | This Much We Know

  11. Pingback: Ask Me Anything (or how to steal the best ideas for making work better) | johnstepper

  12. Pingback: Unlocking potential in your organization | johnstepper

  13. Pingback: All Hail the "Hi Po's!": Have You Locked Up the Potential in Your Organization?

  14. Pingback: All Hail the “Hi Po’s!”: Have You Locked Up the Potential in Your Organization? « Leadership.BlogNotions - Thoughts from Industry Experts

  15. Pingback: 10 personal tips for all charity leaders for 2014 | Stephen George's Blog

  16. Mike Monroe says:

    “Creating environments where people can make their work visible and discoverable.” Love it. That environment starts with a leader who sees everybody as they could be, not as they are. To paraphrase one of my favorite Goethe quotes: “for if you see people as they are, you make them worse. But if you see them as they ought to be, you help them become capable of everything they’re capable of becoming.” Thanks, John.

    • John Stepper says:

      Hello, Mike. +1 for quoting Goethe. 🙂

      Amazing that, given all the research and books and discussions about leadership, that we’re still mistreating people so egregiously in most large firms.

Leave a Reply to Mette Bagge-Petersen Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s