Battle Royale: Talent vs. Determination

I think everyone has heard the saying, “Hard work will always beat talent when talent doesn’t work hard.” In my experience, this statement holds true. I know that personally, I’ve always felt confident that I could outwork the other side through sheer force of determination and will alone. Whether it is athletics, academics, or work, there is almost always a way to get through a problem. As I look back at the times when I was hiring somebody, especially when I first started looking at different people, I was hiring a lot of people based on talent and potential alone which hasn’t always worked out as well as it seemingly should have. I recently addressed this conundrum in a blog post after I read a great interview in the New York Times with Kon Leong. He mentions that one of the things he most tries to identify in the interview process is not only smarts, but drive too. He wanted people that were going to work hard because with those two things you could solve almost everything else. It really changed the way I think about things. Have you spent a lot of time being frustrated with people who you just know better than their performance shows? You know how talented they are, how smart they are, but you just aren’t seeing the results you expect from them. I’ve sat there and wondered why this is. Maybe they just don’t have the tools you thought they did, but I don’t think that’s the case. I think the tools are there and maybe it’s just a lack of drive. Maybe it’s my failure to motivate or find the right way to get through to them but either way, as a manager you should position yourself to recruit for drive as well as intelligence in hopes of alleviating this problem.

I know that this may seem obvious but I think the part that we often miss is asking the questions that let you evaluate their drive. That’s something that I’ve changed a lot and is going to be a much bigger focus in terms of trying to determine how to elicit those responses that give insight into whether people are truly driven. I don’t know if everyone has a general drive to succeed. Ideally, you want to find people that are passionate about solving problems and the things that you do at a minimum. So it’s important to figure out what the right questions are and how do you make that determination early. It’s never going to be a perfect evaluation. You have to recognize that you’re going to end up with some folks in your organization that are really smart and really talented but no matter what, you’re just not going to be able to get them to perform the way that you feel they should. At some point you’re going to have to move those people out because if you’ve got a collection of people that have that drive and that ambition and you have a couple folks that aren’t on the program, you will not reach your potential as an organization.

This is just like being on a team when you’re a kid and your coach would say things like, “Everyone is a team here and we need to pull together,” or “We’re only as strong as our weakest link,” and I think these clichés among others are just as applicable in your work life as they were in athletics as a kid. If you have somebody that doesn’t have the desire or the drive to push, they’re not there for the same reasons, or they’re detracting from everybody else’s efforts then you need to really question how long you want to wait for that drive or ambition to appear; and how many times are you going to attempt to motivate them before you make a decision that you are going have to part ways. If someone isn’t living up to the set standard and you can’t get them there fairly quickly, I think you need to make a decision about their future in your organization. You can be as kind as you possibly can be about it but after I’ve tried a few things such as having a discussion with them about level of effort and it’s still not working out, it’s time to let go or otherwise you’re jeopardizing your whole team.

I’ve also come to the belief over time that it’s a lot easier to teach technical skill or soft skill, or interacting with the client than it is to teach drive. So if you get somebody and you start to wonder if the effort just isn’t there or maybe something is distracting and it persists over a long period of time, you are never going to get that person out of that behavior. At least that’s my general belief with the rare case that is the exception to the rule, but that type of behavior casts a pall over the rest of your organization and is just not worth whatever talent that one person may have. I’d be very curious to hear what other people’s experiences are. Have you had a happy ending to a story where you had somebody with a lot of talent but you just couldn’t get them to work and you found a way to motivate them? I certainly don’t want to discount a manger’s ability to motivate or find the right way to get somebody to do things but I sometimes think there is too much emphasis on mangers and leadership getting people to excel. Sometimes you just need to understand that you will not be able to motivate that person and you have to just cut them loose, but I’d love to hear other people’s takes on this issue.

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