Talent or Attitude or Both?


Quite a bit has been said and written about this subject, and yet it keeps coming up in various forums as topic of discussion and thought. My sense is people have an idea but they want to get more scientific around which one is more important. Get more perspectives and examples that will help them make better Talent or Capability decisions.

Before we move forward its critical to define Talent. There are several definitions of talent. The simplest one, being – “Skills or abilities”. Some people like to add the expression “innate” as a prefix to that definition. The one definition that really stuck with me was “A recurring display of a skill or behavior or ability” is Talent. That kind of makes sense, because the term Recurring rules out the “flash in the pan” factor and underlines a degree of expertise “displayed over a period of time” in a certain skill/ability/behavior.

If that is the definition we hang on to, then we do realize there are several examples in our ecosystem where people tend to exhibit recurrence in display of skills or abilities, which make them talented in those disciplines. Several of these, abilities are inborn. For example, an infant starts walking and all of sudden surprises people around with the speed at which she can move from one point to another. That Inborn Attribute of speed, which as the little one grows up tend to get displayed on a recurring basis in various informal or formal events and thus get recognized as a talent. Similarly, we all demonstrate our innate talents at various stages of life. The question is, what do we make out of it?

When I was growing up I had a natural talent to run in and bowl fast or hit the ball hard with bat. I did exhibit this talent fairly regularly amongst my friends (Picking wickets or hitting sixes in the neighborhood park), yet I never achieved excellence. Many young people are blessed with the gift of language i.e. they have a way with words. Not all of them are accomplished writers or orators. So what is it that is between Talent and Excellence / Peak Performance?

Harsha Bhogle, is his recent book The Winning Way describes this under a sub-heading “Resources vs Resourcefulness”. Many individuals have the penchant of collecting books on Leadership and Management. (I do!). Their bookracks certainly resemble a treasure chest of deep knowledge. One look at that rack and one would wonder, how well read the person is and how much knowledge the person would have. Yet, not every Leadership Book collector is a Good leader, let alone Great. This is the physical manifestation of the Resources vs Resourcefulness debate. You may have all the talent / promise in the world – the question is what did you DO with it?

The curious case of Vinod Kambli will be a great lesson in this topic, for generations to come. A splendid talent (even better than Tendulkar – as per their coach), had a glorious future ahead of him. Got his breaks at the right time, arrived at the international scene making the right noises, and then calamity struck. Success brings along with it many distractions and at the top level apart from talent, one requires the ability & attitude of self control, composure, determination and an impeccable work ethic. If that’s compromised, its dooms day! Kambli will probably be the most talented “has been” of World Cricket. As Harsha points out “Talent can open the first door of opportunity, in some cases the second. But by the third if its only talent it starts getting difficult”.

Conversely what do champions do? Lets take Sachin Tendulkar. Kambli’s mate. Growing up together, playing for the same school, training under the same coach. Similar or slightly less talented. Gets his break and has a modest beginning. But with every passing day works harder at his game, his focus, determination, discipline, dedication, work ethic, hunger to reduce his flaws etc. add to his overall profile making him the champion he is. Had it been only for talent Tendulkar wouldn’t have lasted 22 years.

When we think about the 2 stories above, and connect back to our professional lives, we will see there are several successful individuals – Sales, Service, Engineers, Software developers, Accountants etc. who did not succeed just because they were good at their work. They had that something else – the right attitude to go with their talent. A Sales person with outstanding ability to pitch, negotiate and close, without the attitude of hard work or relationship creation may just be a great closer but will never be the champion sales person. A developer with greatest of coding skills, and negligible attitude to be a team player will always find it difficult to work as a team and contributing to a larger project charter. A good leadership talent, will never be a great leader if she doesn’t have the attitude to listen, include and respect others.

In the movie clip below 1980 USA IceHockey coach drills this message into the bunch training to represent US in the 1980 winter olympics. This is one of the best depiction of “how for being a champion, one needs to rise way above the threshold of Talent and bring out that “Something Else”.

So, what is Attitude? Out of the several definitions doing the round the one that I found interesting is “A predisposition or a tendency to respond positively or negatively towards a certain idea, object, person, or situation”. I like this definition because it captures the choice that an individual makes w.r.to the positive or negative response in a given situation. And this choice separates the Mortals from the Immortals. Did you see the recent movie 127 hours (Starring: James Franc0, Directed by: Danny Boyle)? The film is a simple story of an adventure freak suffering a freak accident and getting stuck in the ravines with his right hand stuck between a boulder and a rocky wall. And what starts as a minor incident gradually unfolds in its enormity with the protagonist stuck in the position for 127 hours. Without divulging much there, all I want to point out is the Talent-Attitude interplay. While he had all the talent in the world to conquer those ravines, that situation needed him to bring out the right attitudes, which will make him think clearly and do the right things. For example: not to panic, which will help him regulate body heat, he will thus perspire less and he will consume less of the limited water. At no point does the thought of NOT returning home cross his mind. Its this positivity that keeps him going, making him try creative outrageous ways to get out of that hole.

Between 2000 – 2008 Australian cricket team never thought about “what if we loose”. The only question that occupied their mind was “How do we win from here”. Even in the most hopeless situations they were known to talk of winning ..not even a draw. It wasn’t a surprise that they were the invincibles.

Once in my school days, I was approached by my house-captain to participate in the Hindi debate competition. I dreaded Hindi and hence was reluctant in accepting it. I went home and told my father about my reservations and he quite coolly looked at me and asked me “why not?”. He said if you don’t do it, you will never have an experience to look back and if you do it, you will have a lesson – good or bad. And that to me was one of the simplest lessons of developing attitudes. “Why not?” Two simple words – just two words – yet have the ability to convert thick walls of pessimism into blue skies of optimism. I have used this “Why not?” at significant inflection points of my career – moving from sales to Marketing to HR, were all moments of powerful “Why nots”.

So attitude is a choice that one makes. And this choice is an exponent of our beliefs that we derive from our life experiences. A kid standing on top of the bed eyeing the ground for a leap for the first time, will have many thoughts and fears. He makes a choice and jumps. If he hurts himself badly, there is a tape that gets recorded in his brain. Next time he faces the similar plight, promptly the Tape plays in his mind – now if the words of the tape is “Why not go ahead…” – he does. That’s a Winner tape aka Positive Attitude. And if the Tape says “No, don’t! Don’t you remember what happened last time?” well, that’s a loser tape. Life experiences tend to get recorded in tapes in our mind and over a period of time have considerable effect on our belief system. It is this belief system that we can work on to impact our attitudes. And for that to happen we need the right people/environment/habits around us who/which can help us experience the right experiences that will alter our belief to positivity.

A Person with all the talent in the world without the right attitude will not be a winner in the long run (We do see instances of very talented individuals not very successful with a lot of arrogance or ego whining about the life in general). On the contrary a person with less talent but loads of the right attitude can achieve unthinkable heights of excellence, because the attitude will push the person to overcome the talent gaps, with the right work ethic and dedication. Who better than Mahendra Singh Dhoni to exemplify that point? A player with very limited talent in terms cricketing skills, but very high application mindset, and attitude to use his limitations to maximum effectiveness. It is no surprise that he is so successful as a Captain, Batsman, Wicket-Keeper and most importantly team man, in all formats of the game. You never see him going through a bad form, because he works hard to get the best out of whatever he can manage. That is hallmark of a champion.

Talent can be acquired, but it is difficult to do so to a drastically high level. For example: A person with limited design skills while making presentations can work hard and enhance the ability to some extent. But the innate sense of design and aesthetics, requires certain natural inclination, to have the required proficiency. So figuratively a person with 50% talent in something can work hard and make it 70% but not 100%. However, attitude can be built quite drastically. As we established the correlation with belief, it implies that if belief is changed using right experiences attitudes can be changed drastically, almost 100%.

To put this argument into a scientific framework, here is an easy expression that will help us look at the Talent vs Attitude argument more in the right perspective:

(IA + AA) X A = PPP

IA = Inborn Attributes
AA = Acquired Attributes
A = Attitude
PPP = Predictable Peak Performance

IA : are the innate / inborn skills or abilities or qualities that we possess. For eg: ability to run fast, write well (handwriting), sense of colors and art, singing, love for numbers etc.

AA : are those experiences that we gain as we grow, which add to our arsenal of abilities for example: Good Excel skills (to go with love for numbers), mastery in various types of music (to go with love for singing) etc.

(IA+AA) = Together the Inborn and Acquired Attributes represent the overall talent profile of an individual. A Talent decision made only on the basis of this two will give a lot of “What” they can do i.e. Promise on Paper. (How many times have we looked a agreat resume and said, wow! This person is a surefire rock star! Chances are we may just land up with Rocks !!).

A: are the “Hows”. How have they used their talent to deliver great work? How did they make the difference? How did the deal with failure? How did they come out of tough corners? How did they plan for stiff targets, and how dis they conquer those? Its these “Hows” which bring the hidden “X-Factor” of the individual and differentiate the “Can Do-s” from the rest. Hence the usage of Multiplication instead of addition, as the presence of right attitude at the right time can have a multiplier effect.

PPP: When right attitude combines with the talent, the possibility of Peak Performance is highest and when this happens consistently, one can predict peak performance with a considerable degree of consistency. (Again Indian Cricket in the 90s vs the last 3 years – the Predictable Peak Performance is higher than ever. No wonder we consistently figure in the top 1/2 in all formats).

Talent decisions, are increasingly becoming the most crucial set of activities in the Organization decision making agenda. Post the financial meltdown, organizations are investing in more and more quality systems and processes to make these decisions more effective. The world is gradually making the shift from pure Talent based selection to a more balanced Talent + Attitude based selection. Its becoming imperative by the day to focus not on “Whom we have” but to focus on “What can they do? And How?”.

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