Psychologist Adrian Furnham on why our traditional approach to high potential means we miss out on the real superstars.
Few of us would relish managing an employee who routinely described his subordinates as ‘idiots’ or expected staff to stay at work all night to meet his self-imposed deadlines. Yet Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, two leaders with just such traits, also possessed the vision to grow billion-dollar businesses from scratch.
If businesses could spot and nurture talented individuals who don’t immediately fit the corporate mould, he argues, they wouldn’t so often end up as either entrepreneurs or misfits. People Management asked Professor Furnham whether HR is ready to take a gamble when it comes to potential.
What’s wrong with the way most organisations identify high-potential individuals?
Businesses still have this idea of a ‘talent group’ but it’s very hard to identify these people correctly. The most famous study on this was by Lewis Terman, who identified all these high-flying, brilliant kids, very few of whom turned out to be successful later in life. The brightest boy at my school is now a bus driver. In that sense, he didn’t achieve. So the idea of identifying people who will have a remorseless rise in the future and will save the organisation is very difficult.
Also, having a talent group can ostracise those who aren’t in it. The implication is that they’re not talented. And once you hail someone as talented it has disastrous consequences, in my view – they become arrogant and demanding. If you’re going to have a talent group, you need mobility. People need to be able to go in and out of that group, but few companies do that.
What makes someone genuinely talented?
It’s about ability, personality and motivation. There’s broad agreement on the personality characteristics of talent, and on what ability means, though people are embarrassed about measuring that. But the thing we find difficult to articulate and measure is motivation. You can say someone is brilliant mathematically, and they’re conscientious and well-adjusted, but what really matters is having the desire to do something.
Is it easier to just say everyone is talented, as the likes of Google now do?
No. We’re all different and some people have more skills and abilities than others. Some have better personality traits. If you specify a particular job, I could give you a reasonable specification of the abilities and personality to do that job. The hard bit is finding whether they are hungry enough. They might be hungry for the cash, but not for the product, the outcome, the vision.
What type of person slips through the net of most high-potential programmes?
It’s the mavericks, the people who don’t quite fit in any box. They have preferences, likes and dislikes that might not fit easily into the corporate ladder. All entrepreneurs have had very checkered careers – they’re able to start organisations, but they can’t run them. The people on Dragons’ Den, for example, have never worked out in conventional organisations – they succeed in the end, but they don’t go down any sort of traditional route.
What’s different about a ‘game changer’?
[Organisational psychologist] John Mervyn Smith got a load of these people together and two things came out of it. One is obsessionality – a strong, focused desire to do things differently and to improve on what’s there. The other is imaginative creativity.
Those two ideas don’t fit together very well in the literature. Obsessionality is always seen as a negative characteristic, associated with OCD, and yet you can see people like Jobs who doggedly pursue a dream, almost to obsession. And the creative person is normally a bit arty-farty, not very practical or persistent. But this unusual combination of characteristics – hard-working, productive obsessionality mixed with vision – does work.
How would you design a programme that helped find such people?
I would profile certain characteristics I thought were important for all jobs, and I’d take interest in the extreme scores. But then I would use a person’s history to understand their motivation. Most organisations only talk about ability and personality, and only bother measuring personality.
Looking at motivation is expensive – it’s an assessment centre exercise. I’d want to know about the organisations you’d worked for in the past. I’d phone people who worked with you and for you and get them to describe what they thought drove you.
There would be pain in getting there, and some of the people you identify would fail. Many organisations can’t deal with that trade off, but, if people are our greatest asset, you want to find the rainmakers – the ones who might be rather difficult but whose natural inclinations might help you to a new way of doing things.