What to do with Talent?


Most organisations nowadays have ways and means to identify talent, and as with any process, some methods will be more effective than others.

However, once identified what do they do with their talent to allow it to meet its full potential?  It can often take a brave organisation to throw their talent into the firing line and watch it grow or fade from the sidelines – nodding on as a wise, supportive ‘parent’, or shouting at them until red-in-the-face about what they are not doing right!

To be honest in our stretched, do more-with-less, need for immediate success working environment that most people operate within, some talent finds its way out of this grip to flourish.  But a lot is often trapped at source; why risk helping someone to meet their potential when we have a number of people that we already know what they’ll offer and how they’ll go about it?  This mind-set is understandable to a degree, but then why waste good money, time and effort identifying talent in the first place?  Reputationally, having a clear, marketable talent programme is a draw for people; however, word of mouth about ‘practice not meeting theory’ will very quickly put a quash on these ideals and damage the reputation so fiercely fought for.

invisible talentThis is all swirling around in my head at the moment; as an avid sports fan, and in particular with the closing of the recent summer transfer window in football, talent is a hot topic in the sporting world.  This ‘window’ allows teams across the world to transfer players in and out of their club in a defined two-month period.  It’s an event that gets a lot of attention in the media and even non-football fans will probably have heard of the transfer of Neymar Junior from Barcelona to Paris Saint Germain for a world record fee of £198m – the price of talent, huh!  The big question in this period is should clubs stick or twist?  Use what they already have, or replace it with other ‘talent’?

Should clubs stick or twist? Use what they have, or replace it with other ‘talent?

Fans are often blamed for demanding clubs spend money for instant success.  Whether this is true or not, is by-the-by; what’s not in question is the pressure for clubs to succeed, no matter what level they operate at.  Only one team can win their league each year.  Surely it therefore makes sense for clubs to create strong foundations for future success, by better using the talent already at their disposal?

The particular case that really draws this into the light for me is the case of Renato Sanches.  Sanches is a Portuguese midfield player who at 18 made his first team debut for Benfica, the best team in Portugal, helping them win the league title.  In the summer of the same season he represented Portugal at 2016 European Championships in France, helping them capture the title for the first time in their history.  At the same time he became the youngest Portuguese player to appear at an international tournament, and the youngest player from any country to win a Euro Final.  He won the Young Player of the Tournament award too.  And he also received the 2016 Golden Boy Award, which is awarded by a panel of European sports journalists to that year’s most impressive under-21 player playing in Europe (like Messi and Rooney before him)…  Quite a talent!  Quite a year!!

Sanches then agreed a move to Bayern Munich, one of the best teams in Europe, for an initial €35 million, rising to a potential €80 million depending on set targets.  At the time this was the highest fee paid for a Portuguese player leaving their domestic league, and the fourth-highest paid in Bayern’s history.  This wasn’t a surprise following his incredible start to his career, and he was wanted by most other top teams in Europe.  What is a surprise is that a year later he joined Swansea City on loan.  Swansea finished 15th in the Premier League last season, just 7 points above the relegation zone.

Sanches’ talent was identified and ‘purchased’ and then… replaced by different talent for millions more just a year later.

tacticsHe’s only been loaned out, perhaps with the understanding that increased opportunities may develop him further.  A ‘secondment’ can often be the release that can help individuals thrive, re-engage and become re-invigorated – providing new challenges and areas of responsibility.  Maybe opening up his position creates opportunities for other talent to show their worth at Bayern, especially as they’ve invested in other young players from across Europe.

If someone makes a mistake at such a young age, this will often have a negative impact if they don’t get the required support and direction

Sanches has publicly stated he was unhappy with his performances last season so on the surface doesn’t appear to be lacking in self-awareness.  However, was the right environment created to help him fulfil his potential?  Sanches is only just 20 years old, and has only had a few years as a professional – should we take it as a given that he will slot right into a new team in a foreign environment?

If someone makes a mistake at such a young age and with such a large ‘organisation’, this will often have a negative impact if they don’t get the required support and direction.  Maybe some individuals are not resilient enough, or have character and attitude flaws – but who doesn’t from time to time!

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While Bayern won the league, Sanches started just four league games, playing the entirety of only one.  So, who can blame Bayern as they achieved their primary goal of league success?  Would taking a longer-term view, however, enable them to be more consistently successful in the wider European football competitions if they helped develop his early promise?

Football’s obviously in its own little world, which people now deride as being more business-focused than about entertainment and the fans.  So how does this make business-sense?!  On a smaller financial scale this mismanagement of talent is also repeated time and time again across all sectors, impacting morale, engagement, innovation, reputation, results, profit.  Talent can often be seen as a threat by existing employees too; individuals can be fearful of change and how their expertise and sense of status might be affected by ‘incoming talent’.  Again with Sanches, former Bayern Munich and German great Lothar Matthaus named him among the three worst players of the season – nicely supportive!

When managing talent in the workplace there are three key areas that, from experience, I believe need to be put in place:

  • Create Opportunities

    It seems obvious but individuals need opportunities to demonstrate their talent. This means opportunities aligned to their talent and interests too.  Encourage individuals to think creatively about what these mean to them as well, as this can often mean opportunities that exist outside their immediate team and role, so they are not potentially stifled by the defined boundaries that currently surround them.  Showing confidence in individuals goes a long way to developing self-confidence in them.

  • Support and Recognise

    Behaviour begets behaviour. Supporting your talent to achieve their career and development goals will build trust and ensure they can clearly see the interest and effort being put in to make them a success.  Clear feedback, goals linked to organisational objectives, while providing time, space and resources are great enablers of this too.  Also, recognising success and the effort they put in to achieve it will increase their engagement and empower them to drive on towards future success.

  • Allow Mistakes

    I feel it’s essential that people are allowed to make mistakes. Mistakes are an everyday occurrence in the workplace, so they should be expected.  We often hear that ‘people learn the most from the mistakes they make’, so let’s help people learn then!  If we don’t, we run the risk of creating a fear culture, and people will play it ‘safe’ to avoid blame, leading to lesser results, with morale and confidence diminishing every minute.  Talent will be squashed, not utilised.  Encourage, support, recognise effort and help people learn from their mistakes, don’t hang them out to dry and destroy the trust in your relationship.  I’ve heard managers argue that they “didn’t invest in talent to get mistakes” – no, you invest in talent to get results, so how are you going to enable them to do this?

There’s a lot, in my opinion that we can learn about talent from the sporting world – examples abound of both good practice and bad, and it’s important we’re able to learn lessons from both.  And it might be worth paying closer attention to the outcomes of decisions made in this industry.  For example, how will Ousmane Dembele (£135.5m all-in), the 20-year old talented Frenchman, fair at Barcelona after replacing Neymar?  How will his talent flourish?  Next summer’s transfer window might tell us!

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