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What Can Greg Brady Teach Us About Mislabeling Talent?

by Katy Campbell

What can Greg Brady teach us about leadership?

In my last blog, Four Behavioral Interviewing Myths Debunked, I referenced an ancient teaching tale about men trying to identify an elephant in the dark. That story would probably also lend itself to today’s topic of identifying hidden talent, but I’ve opted for another ancient, but far groovier tale from The Brady Bunch.

The story goes like this: The year is 1973, and Greg Brady, the dreamiest and most “outta sight” of the Bunch, is discovered by a record producer who is sure that she can make him a pop sensation. She dubs him “Johnny Bravo” and dresses him in a far-out matador suit. All signs point to rock-n-roll superstardom for Johnny Bravo, until Greg hears the recording of his first “hit,” which is enhanced and auto-tuned beyond recognition. Upon hearing the artificial voice, he exasperatedly asks the producer, “Well, what do you need me for?” to which the she replies, “You fit the suit.”

The irony of this episode was that the character was indeed musically talented, but alas, talent wasn’t what was being assessed, nor was it valued by the key stakeholder, the producer. What she valued was a rockstar look over rockstar talent. Frustrated that his talent was inconsequential to the producer, Greg Brady headed for the exit, turned dramatically in the doorway, and proclaimed, “Adios, Johnny Bravo,” before exiting stage left.

Unfortunately, a similar phenomenon plays out in organizations every day. Job offers are extended, promotions are proffered, and coveted slots in high-potential pools are bestowed based on criteria that have less to do with talent and more to do with “fitting the suit.” Subjective criteria and biases, such as graduating from the “right” program at the “right” school with the “right” grade point average, coming up through the “right” organizational channels, and so on, are often used to hire and promote the “right” candidates, while talent and motivation to do the job go mostly unexamined.

Probably without even realizing it, many organizations have put “fitting the suit” in the driver’s seat of their selection, promotion, and succession decisions, and have allowed talent to take a backseat—maybe even strapping it  to the roof of the Vista Cruiser. You’ve certainly seen examples of this, such as when a hiring manager will never hire a graduate from a particular university because he believes its program is “overrated,” or the leader whose idea of developing talent is mentoring those who flatter her ego. Both may seem innocent, but don’t be fooled. Whenever actual talent is overlooked in favor of subjective criteria, organizations lose, and lose big.

Consider the following:

Loss #1: Perspective and Problem Solving

When an organization defines success and promotability as primarily what a person has (educational pedigree, years of experience, professional memberships, etc.), then only those cut from the same cloth need apply. An exclusive club is formed of people who have had similar experiences and backgrounds, which leads to a uniformity of thought, problem-solving approaches, and perspective taking hold. What’s more alarming is that sameness breeds sameness—a vicious cycle of likeminded leaders hiring and promoting people just like themselves is created, and any chance of new thinking or approaches becomes more remote.

In his book, The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools and Societies (Princeton, 2007), Scott Page found that in some situations, a diverse group of ordinary people can outperform a group of like-minded experts. Page found that when you solve problems from dominantly one perspective, you're building-in an error rate of about 30 percent.

So, hiring and promoting with an exclusivity bias is a dangerous path. Looking for talent across diverse populations, backgrounds, and skill sets, however, introduces different thinking and perspectives to problems that support better solutions and outcomes.

Loss #2: Talent

If you’re looking at “what people have” criteria for selection or promotion as opposed to what people can do, you’ll get people who look great on paper, but you may end up with an executive who can’t execute, a leader who can’t lead, or a hi-po who is actually more of a low-po. In short, people who have all the “right stuff” may not have the talent or motivation necessary to do the job. We’ve discussed the toll this takes on the organization’s performance, but what about its employees?

When the criteria for success in an organization are subjective and narrow, a barrier—or an exit sign—is placed squarely in the path of people who may not possess all the “right” criteria but may have talent to spare. A message is communicated that only certain people’s backgrounds and experiences are valued, and so, predictably, frustrations rise, engagement deteriorates, innovation evaporates, and everyone loses. Everyone, that is, but the organization’s competitors who are only too happy to snatch up the talented people who didn’t fit the suit. Letting talent lay dormant in your organization is your competitors’ greatest weapon.

So what can organizations do to increase innovation, problem-solving, and employee engagement? It starts with focusing on talent and motivations—what people can and will do, as opposed to whether they fit the template.

Focus on talent, not trappings

Start by asking yourself a simple question: what does a person need to do in this role? Coach others? Lead meetings? Communicate with the public? Then ask yourself another simple question: what does a person need to like in this role? A fast-paced environment? Autonomy? Commission sales?

When you focus on what needs to be done in the role, and what someone would have to enjoy to be successful in the role, you can measure candidates against those criteria—talent and motivation—rather than including them or dismissing them based on subjective and non-predictive criteria.

Be a talent scout

Once you know what talents and motivations your company needs, look for it. It sounds simple enough, but talent has a way of tucking itself away and out of view when it’s not needed. Much like a superpower, talent needs to be summoned and  unleashed, for the rest of us to see it and benefit from it. Proactively create opportunities for people to demonstrate their hidden superpowers through learning and development initiatives, assessments and coaching, mentoring, etc.

If you take the approach that those who want career advancement will raise their hands, you’re mistaken. Many talented people may have personalities or cultural norms that could prevent them from declaring their intentions, especially when they have received the message that they don’t “fit the suit.”

Download the new DDI eBook, Turning Potential into Profit: An Action Guide to Unleashing Leadership Potential for Business Results

Katy Campbell is happily based in her adopted hometown of Pittsburgh, Pa., in DDI’s world headquarters. As a DDI Senior Consultant, she is passionate about helping organizations select, develop, and retain the very best talent. When she’s not working, she’s hanging out with her far out and groovy husband, coincidentally named Greg.

Posted: 01 Jun, 2018,
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