Great in one job, awful in another: why great talent doesn’t always transfer

| October 28, 2015

For too long we have been chasing the concept of ‘talent’ down the yellow brick road thinking that it’s going to lead us to the pot of gold.

McKinsey’s term ‘war on talent’ focused our efforts on the belief that great talent is out there, you just need to find it and bag it.

Normally this comes at great effort and expense.

I challenge the theory that talent and intelligence is the answer, and that it’s transportable. There are significant examples in both business and sport where a highly talented individual has shifted companies or teams and failed to fire, resulting in great hopes and great expense extinguished. In some cases it affects other team members built around the star, leaving the employer to go back to drawing board and start again with a fresh piece of talent and fingers crossed.

Such an approach misses the element of “fit”. Is the person fit for the role? Does the star have the skills required for the team? Do they fit within the culture? Do they fit with the management and coaching style already in place? Simple questions which are often overlooked but critically important in the world of high performance.

Below are the five key things you must do to ensure you have fit and high performance in your team.

1. Stop rolling the dice

Get really clear before you go the market or fall in love with your star performer on the core skills, values and behaviours required. What are the high performing behaviours that the role needs? Note, this is not what is available, or those traits of someone you already like. What are the values that will align with the culture of the business and team that enable high performance? What are the potential derailers to high performance in that role, with that team, with that manager, with customers and within the company?

2. Identify what drives the individual

Understanding what motivates the individual, how they like to be rewarded and who they align with is very important to high performance. If they don’t find a team where their values are met, they’re unlikely to put in their best effort and do what’s required of a high performer. The old saying of ‘people don’t leave companies – they leave leaders’ rings true in the world of high performance. Life is too short to be in an environment or team working for someone, or in a relationship that doesn’t invigorate and inspire.

3. Knowing their natural skills

Each of us has a set of behaviours which come naturally to us. Being a people person, strong ambition, innovative and creative, conscientious and hardworking are examples of traits which can come naturally. Various roles have traits which are important for success. Sales, for example, requires a people-person skill; accounting is more likely to be detailed and diligent. Success comes most naturally when there is an alignment of natural skills with the skills required in a specific role. An individual may be able to ‘get the job done’ if they’re not a natural fit but it’s unlikely they can sustain the effort to be a high performer.

4. Manage derailing behaviours

Under stress and pressure most of us overplay certain behaviours. These behaviours can move from being a strength to a weakness and impact an individual’s reputation and the perception of others. I’m sure you know someone who is confident, ambitious and driven but under pressure supercharging those traits can create an overly bold, arrogant, individual who has fantasies about their own talent. Too much of a good thing becomes a liability and everyone around you knows it. Get really clear on how individuals behave in stressful situations and ensure they have techniques to manage their tendencies.

5. Reputation matters more the reasoning

An individual may pride themselves on setting high standards, doing a great job and being passionate about what they believe in. If others though see them as hard to work with, easily upset, volatile and moody, then that is how they’ll be described and how people will relate to them. Others won’t understand the reason why an individual does things; all they see is what they do and the impact it has on them. Remember after every social interaction there is an assessment, and you’re rarely there for yours.

The concept of “fit” proposes the need to find people who have the default skills required for high performance as default strengths in their personality, and are able to deploy those skills easily with room to move. Those people also have to fit the culture of the industry, company, team and most importantly have a values alignment with their direct manager.

Finally in the search for the right person, you must also be able to manage their derailing behaviours when under stress and pressure. There’s no point having a highly skilled person that everyone gets on with but who regularly loses their temper and ruins relationships.

Fit overrides the blind search for talent and intelligence.