Build or burn?

How to manage talent

I’ve heard someone close to the entertainment industry describe film stars as like gods: impossibly good-looking, taller, slimmer, and more confident, even their hair is not like other people’s.  If politics is show business for ugly people, what sort of people are in plain old ‘business’?  I suppose the answer is every sort of person.  Really talented people are quite rare in business as in any other walk of life.  So what do you do if you find yourself managing one?

Firstly, don’t panic.  Really talented people aren’t gods.  They make mistakes and need help, just like the rest of us. However, whatever you do, don’t bother comparing yourself with a really talented person.  It’s natural but, like envying the success of a friend, corrosive.  Don’t let your ego get in the way of your professional responsibility to help the talented person fulfill as much of their potential as possible.  It’s true you have this responsibility for everyone you come into contact with.  It’s just that managing talented people puts special demands on you, their boss, compared to others under your command.

Secondly, take genuine development risks.  Most of us are familiar with the tools of developing people.  Basically, you give them extra responsibility.  If you haven’t got a more responsible role to give them, give them a project.  The aim is to give them experience in an area they haven’t previously had experience of; to make them work harder than normal.  In the jargon, you take them outside their comfort zone and ‘stretch’ them.   In the delivery of the project, both you and they learn about their potential, hopefully expanding their comfort zone as a result.  Your development skill is in selecting the role or project, designing the stretch to be appropriate, and giving them their freedom while also providing support if they need it. 

In my book the normal level of stretch is one where the person being developed half-thinks the task is terrifying and half-thinks they will easily do it.  Any more terrifying than 50% and you’re stretching them beyond their capabilities or its too early in their career.  It’s a development risk in other words.  However, throw away that rule book when it comes to a person with real talent.  You must give them a lot more responsibility, and a lot earlier in their career, than is normal.  In other words, its you that should be half terrified of the development risk your taking, because you will have to give the person a degree of political protection to allow this to happen.  And if it goes wrong, it’s your judgement will be questioned.

I once had a boss who, when presented with a project, would always ask ‘What’s the absolute worst that can happen?’  It used to dismay me because, obviously, the worst possible result is often quite bad, and I always wished he’d focus a little more on the positives.  With a really talented person however, its other people that think you’re taking a crazy risk.  More likely, the person will eat it up and you’ll look like a sage.

Thirdly, chew the fat.  Talk with the person.  Bring them into your confidence, no matter what their level of seniority compared with yours.  This is a rare opportunity in your career.  You are being presented with a gifted person who will help you do your job better.  They will spot things you missed; give you ideas you would not have considered, and get there quicker.  Take advantage of them.  What they get in return in valuable too.  They get the benefit of seeing the world through your eyes.  Lord Browne of Madingley, former CEO of BP and one of the most consistently admired businessmen of his time before his reputation was mauled by scandal, used to pick a talented young person and, for a time, let them literally follow him around.  They were a bag man, but they sat in meetings and gained access to people they would never normally have been able to.

How do you manage talent?  It certainly puts more than usual pressure on you as the manager.  Like the rest of us, you are of ordinary talent but managing talented people is just a concentrated effort of the type of things you should be doing anyway, on a less intense scale, for everyone else, so its not that difficult.  It’s also a copper-bottomed opportunity, for the small amount of time the talented person will be around, for you to advance your own career.  Bask in their reflected glory.

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