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Learn and Grow

Back in the 1990s, McKinsey and Company led the charge for what they called the “war for talent.” This led to an emerging belief that it was most important to hire talented, smart people – regardless of their experience – to gain a competitive advantage. At the time, Enron, the "poster child" for this talent push, was bringing in 250 newly ordained MBAs from the top schools. Well, we know how things worked out for Enron, and there is compelling research that suggests talent – in the form of intelligence or raw memory – is overrated, and that learning and reflective practice is the better formula for high performance in a wide range of fields. Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t believe this, including most managers and the people who work under them. Managers can help change this by placing greater value on learning.

Research over the last few years, especially in cognitive psychology, has failed to find correlations between expertise/superior results and general intelligence. In fact, a recent study by Geoff Colvin reveals that people with average so-called general abilities have been found to be experts in areas as diverse as chess, horse race betting and sales. A meta-analysis of salespeople found that intelligence or IQ was useless in predicting a salesperson’s selling results.1

Instead, hard work and “deliberate practice” are the primary drivers for gaining expertise and achieving success. What Colvin and others found is that even those people we think of as highly talented (e.g., Mozart, Tiger Woods, Warren Buffett) got that way more from effort and sustained practice than merely talent. Learning to be an effective manager is no different. In fact, high performing managers – just like people in other domains – can do things that neither they nor anyone else could have anticipated years earlier when they started their management careers. (Note that Warren Buffett, Jack Welch, and Bill Gates exhibited nothing early in their careers that would have deemed them anything other than average business leaders.)

Thus a focus on ability and talent – whether you are hiring people, managing them, or the one doing the work – is often a waste of time AND costly. Even experience can be misleading as people with a lot of experience can be ineffective. Enron’s focus on talent led “smart” people to lie in order to protect their status as being “smart” rather than look at failure or obstacles as ways to learn. What generally distinguishes great managers is their ability to learn.

Carol Dweck2 has centered much of her research on why some people seem to embrace learning while others don’t. There are several attributes to good learners:

  • They don’t let failures label them; instead failures are accepted as a great way to learn.

  • They don’t blame others or the situation for mistakes or failure. Fairly early in his tenure, Jack Welch was quick to accept blame for the failed acquisition of Kidder Peabody.

  • They seek constructive criticism rather than demand positive feedback.

  • They surround themselves with capable people that can be even better than they are.

  • They use "we" rather than "I;" the latter insinuates that the leader believes in a “genius with a thousand helpers” model.
The path to becoming an effective manager is to be a great learner. Management is practiced by all kinds of specialists – accountants, salespeople, operations people – and the skills, abilities and attitude that made them good at their specialties are simply different from those required to be a good manager. As shown by Colvin and others, there seems to be no special talent or trait that predicts who will become an effective manager. Those willing to learn through deliberate practice set themselves up for success.

While Enron’s failure can be attributed to a number of factors—including fraud—it is not merely ironic that its highly talented management workforce fizzled out so dramatically. Because talent was lionized by its top leaders, people in the company would sooner lie to protect their status than learn from obstacles or failures. Dweck concludes that these highly “talented” people exhibited an attitude counter to learning – one where they either had the ability or did not. People with a strong belief that ability (as opposed to effort) drives performance are more likely to try to preserve the perception that they are talented or smart, rather than truly engage in challenging experiences. But it is only through these key experiences that learning will take place.

It is advisable to follow LeaderPoint's "11th Commandment:" Reflect and Learn. Moreover, adopt a learning attitude, a mindset where mistakes (and as a manager you will make them) should be learned from, not evaded. And, if you are concerned about developing your people, you should not pollute the context by insisting on judging people’s ability or talent instead of their results and growth.3

1Geoff Colvin, Talent is Overrated, 2008
2Carol Dweck, Mindset: The new Psychology of Success,2006
3Interestingly, in the study of salespeople where no correlation between general intelligence and effectiveness was found, the perceptions (i.e., assumptions) of those sales managers was that the more effective ones were also the more talented. That is, they incorrectly labeled the high performers as smart even though objective data did not confirm any correlation.

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