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Identifying Talent – In Business and Sports, No One Gets It Right Every Time

By Mike Hoban

Mike HobanPredicting the ability of an individual to perform on a much bigger stage is a challenge in the world of sports and in the world of business. There are many—probably hundreds—of people in professional sports who make a living trying to do just that: predict whether an athlete at the college level can be successful at the professional level. They have available to them truckloads of statistics, game tapes, interview notes, professional scuttlebutt, magazine/ newspaper clippings and actual observation of athletes’ performance. Let’s also not forget their intuition and judgment honed over the years. And the specifications for success at the professional level are very clear and well documented, much more so than in business. It seems like the ideal conditions for making a well-informed projection of a college athlete’s success in the professional ranks.

Identifying Talent – In Business and Sports, No One Gets It Right Every TimeAnd often that is true—some great college players become good or even great professional players, just as predicted by those experts. But there are also many well known cases of “can’t miss” athletes who indeed missed badly at the professional level. There are also many cases of overlooked “B players” in college who went on to became stars on the bigger stage. Their true potential was not accurately identified by the very people armed with all of their intel who are paid solely to identify talent.

There are similar realities in the business world when trying to identify who in the organization has “high potential” and should get differential investment and attention for accelerating their growth. There are many excellent mid-level leaders who are seen as high flyers and who go on to be excellent senior leaders. But like in the world of sports, there are those whose perceived trajectory just never gets realized and there are also some overlooked and unsung “B players” who emerge as successful senior leaders.

So in sports and in business, predicting potential is an imperfect science. In fact, often it’s not only science, it is also art; it is serendipity; it is the luck of being in the right place at the right time. While no one gets it right all of the time, be it sports, horse racing, stock picking or identifying the next C-suite leader, how can organizations increase their odds of identifying who has the right stuff to excel at significantly higher levels of leadership? While there are many factors involved, here are a few of the most important:

  1. Differentiate between “readiness” and “potential.” Readiness is about one’s ability to perform at the next level. Can a Director be successful as an AVP? Can an AVP be successful as a VP? In the sports world, the professional level is not just the next level up from the college level, though. It’s a huge leap in terms of required skill sets, physical and mental toughness, tactics and strategies, etc. Some abilities at the college level are simply less important at the professional level. It’s the same game but it’s a different game (that’s the Zen portion of this commentary…) so sports talent scouts are really trying to identify potential not mere readiness. Similarly, in business, senior or strategic work is different than mid-level leader work. As Marshall Goldsmith has famously said, "what got you here might not get you there." In the work world, readiness is easier to predict than potential because potential by definition is fuzzier. It requires more extrapolation and judgment-based projection not only about the talent of the person but about the role requirements in the future.
  2. Identify the factors that suggest potential and use them rigorously in talent reviews and watch for evidence of it in everyday encounters. Many DDI clients identify their high-potentials and then put them through our assessment centers to make a more precise measure of strengths and growth areas. Having been a feedback provider over the years to 100-150 of those so-called high potentials participating in the assessment center, it is sometimes very clear that some of these leaders are not high-potential in any way. No way, no how. The organization’s process and definitions for who should be considered high-potential are either not well developed or not well used. There are a number of models out there for defining potential and whether it is DDI’s 10 factors or some other framework, the best practice is to ensure there is a common vocabulary and robust conversations about what potential means and what the evidence is for whether Joe or Mary has those qualities.
  3. Provide high-potentials opportunities to accelerate their leadership growth. That includes experiences, coaching, coursework, and personal reflection. Track their progress. Determine what they are learning and how they are applying that learning.

To recap, in the world of sports and in the world of business there is not perfect predictability for identifying potential. In sports, for instance, of the 78 different players who have won the Heisman Trophy, an annual award in the U.S. for the most outstanding college football player, 14 of those winners never played a single game in the National Football League and many others simply never attained success at this much higher level of the game. There will be similar misses in business, but putting into place some processes and practices as described above will help improve the odds.

Mike Hoban is a U.S.-based senior consultant for DDI. He’s just back from Asia where he led DDI’s Hong Kong/South China consulting team for a year and a half.

Posted: 21 Mar, 2016,
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