Warren Kennaugh's picture Submitted by Warren Kennaugh December 11, 2018 - 12:17pm

Ever since McKinsey & Company proposed that successful businesses were always engaged in a 'war for talent’ in the 1990s, we’ve been hoodwinked into believing that the secret to high productivity is talent, and we have become obsessed with finding and keeping talented individuals. Today, companies like AT&T, Pfizer, Cisco and Deloitte’s all have a Chief Talent Officer on the payroll. Public service, and many governments, are also taking the talent solution seriously. The Chinese, South Korean and Singapore governments have all started nationwide talent strategies to ensure long term performance and competitiveness.

The problem is, this approach rarely works. It’s expensive (because talent tends to negotiate hard on salary and benefits) and it places unrealistic expectations on an employee to deliver out-of-the-box results. The assumption that one or two brilliant individuals will outshine and outperform everyone also tends to irritate and alienate everyone else in the team. And no one person is ever as effective as a highly functioning team.

Research Provides a Clue

Interestingly, this has been demonstrated by William Muir, an evolutionary biologist at Purdue University. Using chickens as his test subjects, Muir wanted to know whether anything could make the chickens more productive, so they would lay more eggs. Chickens, like human beings, are social creatures — they live in groups. Purdue selected an average flock and left them alone for six generations — this was the control group. The second group was created by taking only the most productive individual chickens, or super-chickens, to create a super-flock. Then, only the best were used for breeding.    

After six generations had passed, the average chickens were doing well. They were plump, fully feathered and egg production had improved dramatically. In the super-chicken flock only three were still alive — the rest had been pecked to death by the most super of the super-chickens. Even three brilliant chickens can’t possibly lay the eggs of a plump, healthy flock. It turns out that the individually productive chickens had only achieved their success by suppressing the productivity of the rest.

What Purdue did was the chicken equivalent of recruiting for talent. This approach does not work. But considering a broader question of fit will.

The Role of Fit in Coaching High Performance

Fit is more important than what we currently consider talent. In fact, I would argue that talent is simply the misdiagnosis of fit. Talent is not some elusive divine spark that only the few possess, but rather consistent output made possible when an individual understands their natural strengths, characteristics, skill set, and values, and matches them to a role and environment that needs and values those attributes.

The first level of fit is obvious and can be somewhat easily assessed. Does the individual have the technical and behavioural attributes to perform at a high level in a specific role? The level of technical skills is easy to establish. By looking at history in a same or similar role, we can make some assumptions about technical fit. Behavioural fit for the role can be slightly more complex. For example, could an introverted person work in a role that requires them to be extroverted for long periods of times? Well yes, but will they be as natural as an extrovert (if all other skills are equal)? I would suggest not. They may be able to survive, but unlikely to thrive, in this potential mismatch. If they have to consistently self-manage in an unnatural environment, they won’t have the comfort of space in their personal system.

The second level of fit is much harder to ascertain. Does the individual have an intrinsic value and do his/her motives fit with the manager, team, department, organisations and industry? There is no doubt that fitting the values with the manager is the most important, as we know “people join brands and leave leaders.” Organisations tend to assume that if an individual is great over there, they’ll be great here.... if only the world was that simple. Both the corporate and sports worlds are littered with exceptional talent that was paid by a big sign-on bonus only to have failed to deliver on their expensive potential. And it wasn’t because they lost their skills overnight.

Intrinsic values fit is currently being overlooked as an indicator for high performance. Simple psychology would suggest to us that an individual is unlikely to perform at their highest level when they are in an environment which they find confusing and uncomfortable. Going a step further, individuals are unlikely to be totally focused and engaged on their business goals when they’re trying to work out and understand what’s going on in their environment — and why their managers are doing what they are doing.

When coaches use an inclusive lens of fit, it becomes easier to match an individual’s natural skills with their role and creates the space for high performance. It not only brings comfort to a coachee but also provides sense-making which creates a strong connection to their natural talent.

Warren Kennaugh is a Behavioural Strategist who works with elite corporate leaders, gifted professional athletes and world leading teams. He is a speaker, researcher and consultant who is the author of FIT: When Talent and Intelligence Just Won’t Cut It (Wiley). Warren can be contacted at www.warrenkennaugh.com