The Talent Trap : A Career Lesson from Anil Kumble

9 11 2008

 

According to a new book Talent is Overrated by Geoffrey Colvin, the role of talent in an individual’s success in any field be it music, sports or business is much lesser than previously imagined. In an interesting anecdote, he mentions that in a batch of fresh MBAs at Proctor and Gamble, USA, two new recruits, one a Harvard MBA and the other an MBA from Dartmouth looked unambitious and least likely to aim for the top job. But both went on to become CEOs of Fortune 10 companies, Microsoft and GE. The individuals being described are Steve Ballmer and Jeffrey Immelt., who became CEOs of Micorsoft and GE before they turned 50. 

 

Geoffrey Colvin attributes the success to enormous amount of hard work over many years. But not just plain hard work of the ‘practice makes a man perfect’ kind. Prof Ericsson from Florida State University, who has researched extensively on this subject says: 

 

The best people in any field are those who devote the most hours to what the researchers call ‘deliberate practice’.  It’s activity that’s explicitly intended to improve performance, that reaches for objectives just beyond one’s level of competence, provides feedback on results and involves high levels of repetition.

 

For example: Simply hitting a bucket of balls is not deliberate practice, which is why most golfers don’t get better. Hitting an eight-iron 300 times with a goal of leaving the ball within 20 feet of the pin 80 percent of the time, continually observing results and making appropriate adjustments, and doing that for hours every day – that’s deliberate practice.  

 

Consistency is crucial. As Ericsson notes, “Elite performers in many diverse domains have been found to practice, on the average, roughly the same amount every day, including weekends.  

 

Evidence crosses a remarkable range of fields. More deliberate practice equals better performance. Tons of it equals great performance.  

 

The role of a parent or a coach in designing a deliberate practice routine cannot be overestimated. Tiger Woods’ father coached him on golf since he was 18 months old. Vishwanathan Anand had his mother. Sachin Tendulkar had his mentor in his brother first and then Ramakant Achrekar. 

 

This need not be limited to sports or music alone. It can be applied to business too. Here is what Colvin says: 

 

Many elements of business, in fact, are directly practicable. Presenting, negotiating, delivering evaluations, and deciphering financial statements – you can practice them all.

 

Still, they aren’t the essence of great managerial performance. That requires making judgments and decisions with imperfect information in an uncertain environment, interacting with people, seeking information – can you practice those things too? You can.

 

 

The first is going at any task with a new goal: Instead of merely trying to get it done, you aim to get better at it.

 

 

Report writing involves finding information, analyzing it and presenting it – each an improvable skill. Chairing a board meeting requires understanding the company’s strategy in the deepest way, forming a coherent view of coming market changes and setting a tone for the discussion. Anything that anyone does at work, from the most basic task to the most exalted, is an improvable skill. 

 

Through the whole process, one of your goals is to build what the researchers call “mental models of your business” – pictures of how the elements fit together and influence one another. The more you work on it, the larger your mental models will become and the better your performance will grow.  

 

Andy Grove could keep a model of a whole world-changing technology industry in his head and adapt Intel, as needed. Bill Gates, Microsoft’s founder, had the same knack: He could see at the dawn of the PC that his goal of a computer on every desk was realistic and would create an unimaginably large market. John D. Rockefeller, too, saw ahead when the world-changing new industry was oil. Napoleon was perhaps the greatest ever. He could not only hold all the elements of a vast battle in his mind but, more important, could also respond quickly when they shifted in unexpected ways.  

 

That’s a lot to focus on for the benefits of deliberate practice – and worthless without one more requirement: Do it regularly, not sporadically.  

 

Sachin Tendulkar and Anil Kumble have both achieved great success. Sachin was identified as a prodigy, but Anil Kumble was branded as a talentless plodder. Tracing his long journey with Tendulkar, Kumble said, “When Sachin started his career everyone said he would break all batting records, and when I started my career everyone said I would not play more than two test matches. Sachin has had to spend the rest of his life proving people right while my entire career was spent on proving people wrong.”  

 

So everyone can achieve greatness by ‘deliberate practice’! But why then only a few people actually make it? Is this because we’ve not yet cracked the motivation code? We know we need ‘deliberate practice’ to succeed. But we still do not know for sure which are the different factors that motivate different individuals to dedicate themselves in ‘deliberate practice’. 

 

– G. Mohan 

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2 responses

9 11 2008
Bill Rothschild

There is no question that individuals can develop specific skills. But it is also true that you need the RIGHT talent for the right situation and strategy. In my book Risktaker, Caretaker, Surgeon, Undertaker- the four faces of strategy leadership, I demonstrate how the skills and talents of the leader and his or her team relates to the life cycle of the business and the type of differentiators it has selected to gain a competitive advantage. It will be interesting to see how Obama and his team relates to the current crisis. It is definitely going to require unique talents. I recommend that you read The Team of Rivals which depicts the genius of Lincoln.

Bill Rothschild, author of THE SECRET TO GE’s SUCCESS, the only comprehensive, objective and insightful analysis of how GE’s talent fit their remarkable history.

19 11 2008
Venkat Subramaniam

There is a difference in the deliberate practice to be done by sportsmen who need to perform within a event based window vis-a-vis specialists and managers in the corporate world and other walks of life.

For the sportsmen all their practice culminates within the given span of time when their event unfolds and there is an objective assessment of their performance in that event. The greatness of the sportsmen is the sum total of these objective assessments. In team games the assessments become a little more subjective.
Hence, while the sportsmen have a certain degree of control on the parameters within which they will be performing they also have the urgency of performing within a short span of few hours (a number of times during their career.

On the other professionals in the corporate world, have a continually changing and dynamic environment, and the degree of control they have is relatively less. Since there is a collective connotation to their performance they can escape not taking the brunt of objective assessment. Hence, deliberate practice for them would mean being continuously in the learning and doing mode, and analyse the feedback of this ‘learn and do’ process.
The higher up the person is in the corporate ladder, the real assessment of the person might come up much after the person has retired. For example, I remember Mr. Deveshwar head of the ITC group paying rich tributes to his predecessor Mr. KL Chugh for entering the agri-business. It seems Chugh’s decision was not well accepted during his times, but it started paying dividends much later.

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