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    Entries in talent (39)

    Tuesday
    Feb022016

    We value hard work, but we reward natural talent

    Of all the phrases used to describe a candidate or an employee, 'He/she is a hard worker' is probably one of the most valued by employers, colleagues, and the people in general. We like people that work hard. We value the effort, the grind, the grit of folks who show up, dig in, plow through - day in and day out. Some even think that 'working hard' is actually a skill akin to other technical or practical kinds of aptitudes that are often harder to find.

    After all, 'hard work', even if it is a skill, is probably one that can be 'learned' by just about everyone. In many ways you just have to decide to work hard and there it is, you are a hard worker. Doesn't exactly work that way for other skills like coding, painting, or hitting 3-point baskets.

    But as much as we value hard work,  a skill that is readily observable, some recent research suggests that we value (and reward) something more intangible much, much more - the ore opaque notion of 'natural talent.'

    Researchers Chia-Jung Tsay and Mahzarin Banaji examined what has been called the 'naturalness bias', the tendency to choose and reward so-called 'naturally talented' people over the classic 'hard-worker' in a series of experiments that were recently described in FastCo Design. Here is an excerpt from the piece: 

    "We are likely influenced by concepts such as the Protestant work ethic, and the American dream, and ideals such as a truer meritocracy, opportunity, and social mobility that can be achieved with enough hard work and motivation," says management scholar Chia-Jung Tsay of University College London, via email. "We may subscribe to these ideas, but our preference for and fascination with naturalness still seem to emerge through our actual choices."

    Tsay’s research has documented this tendency—which Malcolm Gladwell coined as the "naturalness bias"—across creative fields. A few years back, Tsay and Harvard psychologist Mahzarin Banaji asked 103 professional musicians to rate two performers based on a written profile and clips of them playing Stravinsky's Trois Mouvements de Petrouchka. The two performers were actually the same person, with one profile tweaked to emphasize work ethic and the other made to highlight natural talent.

    In questionnaires, study participants claimed to value effort and practice over innate ability. But when it came time to rate the "two" performers, they gave the natural higher marks on talent, likelihood of future success, and value as a musical company hire, Tsay and Banaji reported in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. In a follow-up, the researchers found that seasoned experts favored naturals even more than novice musicians did—a finding with troubling workplace implications, given that veterans tend to make hiring decisions.

    Did you catch that? Two performers, who were actually the same performer, and the one that was pitched as having some higher level of natural talent was rated more positively and favorably than the performer who was portrayed as someone whose achievements were a product of hard work. Additionally, the more experienced and 'senior' the evaluator, the more likely they were to reward the 'natural talent' over the hard worker.

    Really interesting implications for this data, particularly in the world of talent evaluation and hiring. If the 'naturalness' bias does exist in organizations, then they could be overlooking or discounting individuals that are totally qualified and capable of performing at a high level, if their history of 'hard work' is somehow diminished in value in the eyes of the talent evaluators.

    More interesting still is that while this research appears to suggest the existence of a bias towards 'natural talent', it seems like 'hard work' is much more reliable in the long run. 

    Let's toss it back to my favorite metaphor for talent and workplace comparisons - basketball.

    'Natural talent' may account for a high degree of accuracy shooting 3-point baskets. But this 'skill' also can come and go in the course of a game, season, and career - sometimes inexplicably. 

    Playing tough, solid, and aggressive defense however, is usually chalked up at least primarily to 'hard work', which tends to be much more reliable, repeatable, and predictable. 

    It can be kind of hard to 'see' natural talent in all kinds of fields. Hard work is a little easier to spot.

    Tuesday
    Dec292015

    Best of 2015: The culture of performance, and firing by form letter

    NOTE: As 2015 winds down, so will 'regular' posts on the blog. For the next two weeks, I will be posting what I thought were the most interesting pieces I published in 2015. These were not necessarily the most popular or most shared, just the ones I think were most representative of the year in HR, HR Tech, workplaces, and basketball. Hope you enjoy looking back on the year and as always, thanks for reading in 2015.

    Next up a piece from June, titled The Culture of Performance, and Firing by Form Letter, a simple example of how organizational culture (needs to) manifest itself in approaches to talent management.

    The culture of performance and firing by form letter

    Super look at just one of the ways that a 'performance is the only thing that matters' culture that is professional American football manifests itself over at Deadspin last week in the piece This is the the letter you get when you are cut from an NFL team.

    Take a look at a typical player termination letter from one of the league's clubs, the Houston Texans:

    A couple of things about the letter, and then i am out for the rest of a summer Monday.

    1. First up, in a really hands-on job like 'NFL Player', physical ability to perform issues are number 1 and 2 on the 5 possible termination reasons. For the rest of us who are not NFL players, this could equate to keeping up our skills, learning new ones as business and technology shifts, and importantly, not 'faking' it in terms of what we say we can do.

    2. Reason 3, and the one that this example from 2006 shows, says basically, 'You are just not good enough, i.e., the other guys on the team are better'. No details, no wordy explanations or nuances. Just a cut and dried 'You're not good enough.' That's cold, but again, completely aligned with the organizational values and culture. Performance trumps everything. Want a high-performance culture? Then you have to be ruthless in trimming the organization of people who don't meet the standard. And you as a leader can't let it bother you too much either.

    3. The organization also has a broad right to terminate you for 'personal conduct that adversely affects or reflects on the club'. Heck, that could be just about anything, since it is the club who gets to evaluate the 'impact' of your behavior. In other words, we (mostly) care about your physical condition and your performance, but we can fire your butt for just about anything we want at any time. Heck, that sounds a lot like many of the places us 'normals' work too. Employment at will is a great deal for sure. Until you get fired, well, just 'because.'

    Hiring, promoting, rewards, and even terminations all play a big role in defining, supporting, and communicating an organization's values and culture. If you are going to go all-in on high performance, well, you need to remember the dark side of that decision too.

    And firing by form letter is one example of that.

    Have a great week!

    Monday
    Dec282015

    Best of 2015: A different view of 'Top' talent, namely that it is mostly a myth

    NOTE: As 2015 winds down, so will 'regular' posts on the blog. For the next two weeks, I will be posting what I thought were the most interesting pieces I published in 2015. These were not necessarily the most popular or most shared, just the ones I think were most representative of the year in HR, HR Tech, workplaces, and basketball. Hope you enjoy looking back on the year and as always, thanks for reading in 2015.

    Next up a piece from May, titled A different view of 'Top' talent, namely that it is mostly a myth, that challenges our ideas on talent management and chasing 'rock star' employees.

    A different view of 'Top' talent, namely that is mostly a myth 

    Caught this piece, The programming talent myth', over the weekend and if you are in the technology space at all (as a techie yourself, someone who has to attract and recruit tech talent, or simply just someone who is concerned/interested with the 'state' of technology today (particularly when it comes to issues of diversity and inclusion)), then you should carve out 15 or so minutes today or soon and give the piece a read.

    It is essentially a summary of a recent keynote speech at a developer's event called PyCon given by Jacob Kaplan-Moss, a well-known contributor to the programming language Django and the director of security at Heroku.

    In the speech Kaplan-Ross took square aim at the concept of 'Top' technical talent, (although I would argue his logic would apply to other disciplines as well), and how the dangerous myth of the 'Rock Star' programmer and the terrible programmer (with nothing really in between these extremes), is detrimental on all kinds of levels. It drives people out of technical careers and studies - if you are not a 'Rock Star' you might as well not even bother. It continues to foster and support less-than-healthy norms and lifestyles - 'Rock Star' programmers work 80+ hours a week and don't think of anything other than programming. And finally, it feeds in to what can easily develop into that 'Bro culture' that is common in many smaller startups and tech companies.

    Here is a little piece from the talk:

    Programmers like to think they work in a field that is logical and analytical, but the truth is that there is no way to even talk about programming ability in a systematic way. When humans don't have any data, they make up stories, but those stories are simplistic and stereotyped. So, we say that people "suck at programming" or that they "rock at programming", without leaving any room for those in between. Everyone is either an amazing programmer or "a worthless use of a seat".

    But that would mean that programming skill is somehow distributed on a U-shaped curve. Most people are at one end or the other, which doesn't make much sense. Presumably, people learn throughout their careers, so how would they go from absolutely terrible to wonderful without traversing the middle ground? Since there are only two narratives possible, that is why most people would place him in the "amazing programmer" bucket. He is associated with Django, which makes the crappy programmer label unlikely, so people naturally choose the other.

    But, if you could measure programming ability somehow, its curve would look like the normal distribution. Most people are average at most things.

    It makes sense if you think of programming as not some mystical endeavor that somehow one is innately born with the talent for or is not. If you see programming and other technical occupations as just ones consisting of a set of skills and capabilities that can be learned over time, (like just about every other skill), then the idea of programming talent and programmers existing on a more normal distribution curve seems the most likely outcome.

    One last quote from the piece:

    The tech industry is rife with sexism, racism, homophobia, and discrimination. It is a multi-faceted problem, and there isn't a single cause, but the talent myth is part of the problem. In our industry, we recast the talent myth as "the myth of the brilliant asshole", he said. This is the "10x programmer" who is so good at his job that people have to work with him even though his behavior is toxic. In reality, given the normal distribution, it's likely that these people aren't actually exceptional, but even if you grant that they are, how many developers does a 10x programmer have to drive away before it is a wash?

    How much does the 'Rock Star' mentality and assumption play in to toxic workplaces, less inclusive workforces, and unfulfilled 'Good, but not a Rock Star' people?

    It is a really interesting piece, and Kaplan-Ross' speech is also on YouTube here, and I recommend checking it out.

    Tuesday
    Dec012015

    Know what game you're playing

    Three separate but sort of related stories from the worlds of music, movies, and sports that all seem to point in the same direction, even if it might not seem so at first glance. First, the background information, and then the (painfully obvious) conclusion and argument for why these things matter to 'regular' folk like you and me.

    Music - Adele's '25' breaks sales records, plus Adele keeps '25' off of most music streaming services

    From CNN Money:

    Adele's latest and highly anticipated album '25' will not be available on music streaming services, according to an executive with knowledge of the release strategy.

    The New York Times, which first reported the streaming decision on Thursday, said Adele was personally involved in making it.

    Adele is one of a small number of A-list artists who can make potentially more money by foregoing sites like Spotify and Apple Music.

    "Adele is an anomaly. If she decided to release her album on cassette tapes, it would still be the biggest album of the year," an industry source said.

    The music label has indicated to streaming executives that "25" will stay off Spotify-like services indefinitely, but that calculation could change in the coming months.

    Movies - 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' breaks pre-sales records, plus 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' will likely not be pre-screened for movie critics

    From The Verge:

    Normally when a movie studio decides not to screen a film for critics, it’s a sign of weakness. The film’s not working, so rather than let bad word of mouth hurt the opening weekend, the move is just to hide the problem from the moviegoing public as long as possible. But there’s nothing normal about the upcoming release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which according to recent reports isn’t screening for year-end awards consideration — and likely won’t be shown ahead of time to critics at all.

    What’s being hidden this time is the movie itself — and any spoilerific twists J.J. Abrams has cooked up. In an era of oversaturation, where it’s common for nearly every major joke and reveal to be spoiled by a movie’s trailers and marketing campaign, The Force Awakens has been a cinematic anomaly, parcelling out carefully chosen nuggets of information that have generated unprecedented levels of excitement without revealing much about what audiences will be seeing next month. For fans, it’s a welcome change that’s largely kept the notorious internet spoiler machine at bay — but for studios anxious to control how every facet of how a movie is perceived in order to maximize box office and hype, it could be the new blockbuster template

    Sports - 76ers Rookie Jahlil Okafor can't stay out of the news - street fights, speeding, fake ID at a bar, plus Okafor's current stats after 18 games (they're pretty good).

    From philly.com

    On the court, Jahlil Okafor had arguably the best start of any Eastern Conference rookie.

    However, his experiences off the court have been far from stellar.

    Four sources independently confirmed to The Inquirer that the 76ers center was pulled over on the Ben Franklin Bridge about three weeks ago for driving 108 m.p.h. The normal speed limit on the bridge is 45 m.p.h.

    The Sixers did not deny The Inquirer's report.

    Ok, three stories from three different component of pop culture, but all kind of instructive for us normals.

    None of us wants the 'rules' to apply to us. Or said differently, we like to think that we are so super talented so important or so irreplaceable that the rules shouldn't apply to us. Just like they don't seem to apply to Adele and Star Wars and NBA stars like Okafor.

    So how can we know if the rules, or at least most of them, should apply to us? Let's look at the above three examples for some guidance.

    1. From Adele - If the value you can create with your work is so unique and so hard to duplicate, then you can control how that work is going to be shared with the world, i.e., with more favorable terms and conditions than others in your field can demand. Adele's fans will buy full albums and CDs (like we all used to), where most other musical artists have to submit to the Spotifys and Apple Musics of the world in order to get their music to the fans (who don't want to pay anything). The entire music industry has been turned on its head in the last two decades, (when was the last time you bought a CD?), but for Adele, she can play the game by the old rules still because she creates value no one else can. 

    2. From Star Wars - If you have a direct line into the hearts and minds of your most important customers, and they will stick with you no matter what, like the fans of Star Wars have for the movie franchise, then you might have a case for the rules not applying to you. Star Wars does not need validation from movie critics, and if you don't need validation or approval of your work from middle management or the suits upstairs, then you have plenty of power. Gaining that kind of trust from customers is really rare and really valuable.

    3. From Okafor - If you have an incredibly rare and valuable set of skills, ones that are in extremely high demand and highly limited supply, then the rules might not apply to you. The list of people that can average 18 points and 8 rebounds in the NBA is very, very short. Like about 10-15 people in the world. If you are one of those 10-15 people then things are generally going to be pretty good for you.

    So should the rules apply to you, or that 'star' on your team?

    Well if you can create value like Adele, connect with your source of profit like Star Wars, or possess such a unique and almost impossible to replace set of skills like Okafor, then maybe the rules should not apply.

    But there are not many Adeles, Star Wars, or Okafors in this world it seems.

    Sunday
    Jul122015

    At ESPN Product beats Talent

    Recently cable sports behemoth ESPN, which likes to bill itself as 'The Worldwide Leader in Sports', announced on its website that it was not renewing the contract of well-known personality Keith Olbermann, who has had a long and checkered relationship with the network.  This announcement follows fairly closely on the heels of ESPN deciding to not renew the contract of perhaps the network's most high-profile individual talent, Bill Simmons, editor of the sports and culture website Grantland, and host of the most popular sports podcast, The BS Report. In both cases, the network executives elected to move on without these high visibility, high maintenance, and high compensation performers for a couple of reasons, one more interesting than the other.Simmons, enjoying his time off

    At first glance these moves are straight up cost-cutting measures. It has been widely reported that ESPN's parent, Disney Corp, is looking for significant cost cuts at ESPN, as the sports division has seen a pretty dramatic increase in costs, primarily the rights fees it has to pay to sports leagues like the NFL and NBA for the rights to broadcast games. Increasingly in the heavily fragmented and competitive world of entertainment, particularly TV, live sports games, (along with awards shows), remain one of the very few types of TV shows that require and generate 'live' viewing. Therefore the value of these games has skyrocketed, the leagues recognize this, and are justifiably getting literally billions of dollars of fee increased from cable and broadcast networks for the rights. So, ESPN costs are going up, people like Olbemann and Simmons represent lots of salary costs, so simple math makes (and made), them both vulnerable.

    But the other reason the two personalities were jettisoned is perhaps more interesting and instructive to the rest of us. ESPN, as we can see from the sports rights fees issues above, is essentially in the business of broadcasting live sports events - NFL game, NBA games, MLB games, etc. That is the 'product' they provide to their audience and sell to their advertisers, and as we see above, pay tremendous and increasing fees to acquire. Everything has to be about generating an adequate return on those investments. People like Simmons and Olbermann, (and hundreds of others at ESPN), exist mainly to enhance the product - talk about the games, analyze the strategies, provide insight to the outcomes, and be entertaining while doing all of these things. But none of those things are the actual product - they only support the product. Simmons and Olbermann are more or less the back office, while the folks that acquire and produce the games, (and sell the ads), are the revenue generators. 

    Simmons and Olbermann are (mostly) Genral and Administrative costs to be trimmed, not significant Top Line drivers, (it has been reported that Grantland has never been profitable and podcasts, even Simmons' are notoriously difficult to monetize, and Olbermann's show was not a big revenue producer).

    And when you are G&A, no matter how funny and glib and well-known, your heads are always going to be first up on the chopping block when budget cuts are looming. You have to understand where you fit in the organization, not just on the org chart, but on the Income Statement.

    At ESPN, and I suppose where you work too, Product drives the Top Line. Not all talent does however. And good luck to folks who can't tell the difference.