“It’s all about the talent” is a favorite phrase of a lot
of business people. I can understand that. It’s direct and sexy in
politically-correct kind of way. I have used it more than a few times. But this
morning, as I was reading some great posts over at Recruiting.com, it just
struck me that the general popularity of the phrase demands a little contrarian
Pithy phrases should always raise our suspicions. While they should be a window to a deeper discussion, they are too often a way of dumbing-down the discourse. Phrases like “Quality is Job 1” when Ford’s quality outside of its pick-up line was abysmal, or “Education is our number one priority” when exactly what we should be educating our kids about is the more critical question. It’s all too easy to agree with the sentiment when the details can be quite disagreeable indeed. When my brother was ten he found one of my cousin’s copies of Playboy. That was quite an education. Are the people who throw around the “Education is our number one priority” phrase with such abandon talking about handing out FHM to young males? Assuming that they aren’t, what exactly are they saying?
After reflection it seems to me that “It’s all about the talent” suffers from the same fatal flaws. It’s easy to agree with the sentiment without having to look more deeply at the details. When I turn a philosopher’s eyes upon the phrase (admission: thinking I was going to be a lawyer at some point I majored in philosophy in college), it doesn’t “parse”, nor does it really hold together as a whole concept.
The problem with the phrase is that it is spoken of as a truism and so the next logical question (“What the hell does that mean?) rarely gets asked. I thought I would take a few posts and look at some alternatives.
For the first part of our exploration, let’s just state that quite frequently it has nothing to do with the talent. More often than not, it’s all about the system. How many really great people have you placed inside a company only to see them wash out? These individuals succeeded in the prior jobs, were considered super-stars in fact, but when placed in the new position they turned out to be a total dud. Is this an instance of the person no being talented? The recruiter? The hiring manager? All of them? None of them?
The fact is that companies are systems. Like your body, or congress or a really cool ’67 Corvette. The component parts really aren’t that useful separated from each other (or, in the case of congress, they aren’t worth that much from a systems perspective either). Most individuals need a focused collection of other individuals to realize their full economic value. Even individual pursuits (like writing this blog) requires and extensive community of readers, as well as all the good people at Typepad. Systems are a team effort.
And for all my posts about “Strategy” and other big concepts around business and enterprise, it is easy to miss the fact that organizations are like biological entities: their major purpose is to survive and pass on their DNA to other organizations, and they have a whole set of antibodies and defenses to make sure that happens. In this metaphor I am not talking about the theoretical purpose of the corporation (to provide protection for shareholders so that they can maximize their return), I am talking about the reality of daily corporate life. Most organizations are insular when openness would benefit them much more, just as most biological entities attempt to keep every pathogen out of them they can, even when the introduction of some pathogens would probably save their lives over the long-run.
This is not a random digression. It’s just recognizing that a recruiter is trying to do something pretty difficult: introduce a germ into a body that is designed to reject it. It doesn’t matter how beneficial the germ (candidate) could be. Ultimately, the candidate’s ability to avoid corporate T-cells is as important (if not more) than her prior star status. Getting absorbed into the corporate body and integrated into its functioning is the only way that the candidate can eventually add any value. Put another way, a star in one movie may be a flop in another. Its usually the whole picture that counts.
This is one reason that it’s really not “all about the talent.” A recruiter can find a star, but if they know that this particular germ is not going to be accepted by the corporate immune system it really doesn’t matter how good the “talent” really is. And until personality profiling and other means of assessing corporate culture, and an individual’s fit to that culture, can be brought to a greater level of science, this is the art of recruiting.
So the conclusion of this post may well be… “It’s all about the talent” means “It’s all about the recruiter’s talent for figuring out whether someone will fit.”