What an exciting few months sports fans have had!

The Soccer World Cup, Rugby Internationals and The Commonwealth and European Games, all performed to world class standards. And it has got me thinking; it wasn’t always the ‘highly talented’ players who made the difference.

The German national soccer team won a fourth World Cup. The all-time leading goal scorer, Miroslav Klose, was an ‘older’ German player who most defenders decided was not ‘highly talented’ enough to worry about. Ten years ago this team could not qualify at European level.

The USA soccer team performed beyond their ranking and are now soccer opponents to be taken seriously. The USA team performed exceptionally well, with arguably few ‘world class’ players in the squad.

The Rugby Internationals have seen New Zealand’s All Blacks hold an unbeaten record of 17 games in succession. Yet reporters and pundits rarely talk about a group of ‘highly talented’ players.

The Scottish athletes and swimmers performed so well at The Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. A small nation against world class competition. We saw Hannah Miley and Ross Murdoch beat leading world swimmers, and Eilidh Childs and Lynsey Sharp handle huge pressures to gain medals. Yet few of the Scottish team would be at the top of your list of world names.

So how do these teams win?

What many fans refer to is actually rather simple:

The German and USA soccer teams work on core skills to a high standard; they didn’t lose the ball very often. They were highly organised and had a clear and clever game plan.

The All Blacks show a superior level of core skills that they can execute at a high level of intensity which opponents cannot keep up.

The Scottish athletes work rate was huge in every event, and their training schedules were followed to the letter and for a number of athletes, in the face of adversity.

Of course, there are talented players in all these teams, but the message that seems to come across is this:

If you ensure everyone has a superior level of core skills that they can deploy with intensity, and maintain under pressure, then results will follow.

This seems to remove the reliance on one or two highly talented people who can turn the game or save the match. Look at England, Brazil, Spain and Italy’s soccer teams who had very expensive and highly talented individuals, yet failed to progress to the final stages. Of course, a few gifted individuals may have an impact, but a substantial number of very skilled people with a good plan will make the percentages work every time.

So where does this leave us? It leaves me questioning whether we spend too much time seeking to recruit and develop a few highly talented people, and not enough time and effort ensuring that the majority have superior core skills and the ability to use these under pressure and at pace?

Are we spending a disproportionate amount of money and time on a relatively few people? Would higher levels of core skills possessed by a larger number of people produce better results?

I suppose the easy answer is that you need both. But resources do not always allow for that and so compromise or prioritisation takes place.

Therefore, I am starting to wonder if we spend too much time focused on highly talented people when the evidence from recent sporting events suggests we would do better to develop excellent core skills amongst all employees, whatever their level.

Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

6 thoughts on “Talent doesn’t always win the game

  1. Thank you for a thought provoking piece Nigel,

    You raise an interesting point in that our ability to engage and develop talent is very much driven and/or limited by resources, as with any strategy. I think the traditional model of HR/L&D is resource intensive and makes it difficult to meet the demands of organisations. By changing the way they work however, I believe HR/L&D can respond to these requirements.

    A few years ago, Charles Jennings made a comment, which really challenged me and left me questioning how I had been approaching my work as an L&OD professional, particularly in the talent management, employee engagement and performance appraisal space.

    Charles said, ‘Many HR led Talent and Succession Planning processes pale into insignificance in terms of tangible results against simply spending more time helping managers get better at developing others’.

    Charles’ comment made me realise that a lot of the work that I felt was important, took pride in and spent a lot of time ‘managing’ was actually having minimal impact (on culture and performance). In simple terms, I was busy, but not successful (enough).

    I realised that the true value of my role was to guide, support performance solutions (rather than training solutions) and to use the workplace to harness learning opportunities that were available every day. I adopted the 70:20:10 framework to support this, developing and improving performance by providing workers with challenging experiences, opportunities to practice, rich conversations, and space to reflect – making informal (workplace) learning intentional.

    I think this approach can free up HR and L&D from many of the resource intensive activities they have traditionally focused on, but it does mean letting go, developing new skills and changing the way we work. We can build the core capabilities and support individual needs as well!

  2. Thank you for a thought provoking piece Nigel,

    You raise an interesting point in that our ability to engage and develop talent is very much driven and/or limited by resources, as with any strategy. I think the traditional model of HR/L&D is resource intensive and makes it difficult to meet the demands of organisations. By changing the way they work however, I believe HR/L&D can respond to these requirements.

    A few years ago, Charles Jennings made a comment, which really challenged me and left me questioning how I had been approaching my work as an L&OD professional, particularly in the talent management, employee engagement and performance appraisal space.

    Charles said, ‘Many HR led Talent and Succession Planning processes pale into insignificance in terms of tangible results against simply spending more time helping managers get better at developing others’.

    Charles’ comment made me realise that a lot of the work that I felt was important, took pride in and spent a lot of time ‘managing’ was actually having minimal impact (on culture and performance). In simple terms, I was busy, but not successful (enough).

    I realised that the true value of my role was to guide, support performance solutions (rather than training solutions) and to use the workplace to harness learning opportunities that were available every day. I adopted the 70:20:10 framework to support this, developing and improving performance by providing workers with challenging experiences, opportunities to practice, rich conversations, and space to reflect – making informal (workplace) learning intentional.

    I think this approach can free up HR and L&D from many of the resource intensive activities they have traditionally focused on, but it does mean letting go, developing new skills and changing the way we work. We can build the core capabilities and support individual needs as well!

  3. Most certainly! Talent alone is highly overrated myth, and given the nature of team sports, it’s not a surprise that teamwork trumps talent, everything else equal. We also need to factor in the length of runway. If we are looking for a short-term success, then talent along might be able to compensate for lack of effective teamwork, and somehow run the show, but to be able to do consistently and keep taking on more complex challenges requires a balanced team that watches each other’s backs rather than a few people looking for their personal glory! We see the same in business as well. I come from software development background, and quite often we ignore this cardinal truth, well at the cost of creating disengaged employee while we continue to pamper away some personalities!

    I agree that developing the team’s calibre is much more critical in the long run than simply hiring the best engineers alone.

  4. Most certainly! Talent alone is highly overrated myth, and given the nature of team sports, it’s not a surprise that teamwork trumps talent, everything else equal. We also need to factor in the length of runway. If we are looking for a short-term success, then talent along might be able to compensate for lack of effective teamwork, and somehow run the show, but to be able to do consistently and keep taking on more complex challenges requires a balanced team that watches each other’s backs rather than a few people looking for their personal glory! We see the same in business as well. I come from software development background, and quite often we ignore this cardinal truth, well at the cost of creating disengaged employee while we continue to pamper away some personalities!

    I agree that developing the team’s calibre is much more critical in the long run than simply hiring the best engineers alone.

  5. Nigel Murphy says:

    Thanks to you both for taking the time to add your views, much appreciated. The 70-20-10 concept is one of our favourites, and yes it is ideal for developing everyone. And yes, we can apply it to whole-team development as well as individuals. This will help a people to think, feel and work like a team. The challenge is keeping up the number of stretch developmental assignments for teams! I suppose the ideal we aim for is team with a high level of core skills AND some highly talented individuals. Let’s think some more about 70-20-10 applied to whole team situations. Connect again soon.

  6. Nigel Murphy says:

    Thanks to you both for taking the time to add your views, much appreciated. The 70-20-10 concept is one of our favourites, and yes it is ideal for developing everyone. And yes, we can apply it to whole-team development as well as individuals. This will help a people to think, feel and work like a team. The challenge is keeping up the number of stretch developmental assignments for teams! I suppose the ideal we aim for is team with a high level of core skills AND some highly talented individuals. Let’s think some more about 70-20-10 applied to whole team situations. Connect again soon.

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