Yesterday I explored why “Its all about the talent” is sometimes wrong. From our discussion yesterday, it should be “Its all about the recruiter’s talent” (as in “It’s all about the recruiter’s ability to figure out what kinds of talent will work within a particular corporate system.”)
Today I would like to explore what the hell we all mean by the word “Talent.” Its one of those words that almost beg for a wink and a nod. If you talk to a recruiter you will get a different definition than if you talk for the lady hiring at the local Chipendales (who still won’t return my agent’s calls, thank you very much). But most of the time there is a common thread through our blanket definitions: star power.
Talent = star is what most of us mean when we say things like “It’s all about talent.” So what is a ‘star’? A star whose own personal mojo is so hot that they can overcome incompetence at every level of an enterprise to deliver the goods. Kevin Costner in “Robin Hood” was a star, because that movie was awful and it had a huge domestic box office. It didn’t matter how bad his accent was, or how mismatched he was with Marian or how Morgan Freeman has more “talent” in his little finger than Kevin Costner has in his whole body. Kevin Reynolds listened to all his star’s rants and directed that piece of junk into the ground, and it still did well. Kevin was worth every cent they paid him. That’s the meaning of star.
The problem is that most ‘stars’ aren’t really stars. Except for a few notable exceptions (maybe Tom Cruise and Tom Hanks), stars are really just the most visible face of a large number of people all pulling together to make something great. Most ‘stars’ go to Hawaii, cheat on their wives and make “Waterworld.” Eventually they make sad 60’s romantic comedy retreads. It’s just the nature of the beast. Being famous for being famous isn’t a sustainable value creation method (although Paris certainly seems to be working it well).
The corporate world is filled with Kevin Costners. Most of them are CEOs. They started out small and made a load of cash. Then they got their first real leadership role (our little Fiorinas grow up so fast, don’t they?), and they put it over the top. So when the big-league retained search agent gets the nod to go find a CEO replacement for Dipco, they go to their bench and look for all their second-string superstars (as present CEOs that are at all successful are expensive and hard to pry out of their present gigs). The new CEO is hired by a bored (I mean board) that is fast asleep at the wheel and then the new CEO blows up and the retained search firm gets another fat retainer. Shareholder value be damned, every business needs a star as its leader. Conventional wisdom has been very good to Korn Ferry.
Of course every once in a while a placement goes right (Gerstner at IBM is a great example), but most of the time this merry-go-round of the corporate star system turns out to be pure incompetence run amuck. What the fancy recruiters and rope-a-dope boards are missing is that those ‘stars’ got to the top on the hard work of a lot of other people. They were part of a system, and their magic was as much in being able to manipulate that system to the corporation’s agenda as it was about their individual ability to produce outstanding results. Take them out of that system, stick them in a new one where nobody knows them from Jack Welch, and their slow destruction starts to manifest itself.
It’s sort of funny (in a black humor ‘Heathers’ sort of way) to watch the same identical Greek tragedy play itself out again and again. The star is hired and everyone thinks their salvation has come. Then there is a bad quarterly report, or something on the Drudge report, or the angry corporate wife filing divorce papers that display the nastiest peccadilloes, and the antibodies come out. As we talked about yesterday, an organization is just like a biological entity. The corporate antibodies are there to attack any invader that they perceive to be hostile to their host. Maybe it’s the chemical signature of too much bad cologne, but the antibodies start going after the star in the most brutal fashion. At first the star writes it off to “transition” but then figures out the antibodies are starting to really kill her, so she does what all leaders do: she asserts control. The new CEO believes that they got to the top on their own perseverance and initiative (the great hair didn’t hurt), and so they work harder and pass out more commands. It would be better if they figured out why the antibodies were trying to kill them in the first place, but this takes a level of introspection that most white males are uncomfortable with (it kinda makes them sissies), so they plow along. Meanwhile, all the people who are coming to them and saying “You know Dick, we have a real problem with this business line and may not make our numbers” become just like the other antibodies to the new CEO – mindless naysayers who aren’t being “team players.” Eventually the CEO marries their mother and kills their father. (Well, that would make it more interesting.)
The fact of the matter is that stars rarely a success make. And this problem is going to get worse over time as we shift more of our work towards creative enterprises where the only candidates to pick from have ego’s the size of the CEO’s house.
So the conclusion of this post is “It’s all about the talent” really means “It’s all about the person who can make things happen, and it probably isn’t the ‘star.’” This of course begs for a follow-up post about what we really should mean by “talent.” I’ll take that on next.