Reflections on talent and character

Reflections on talent and character

Sometimes, when I go on a speaking tour, I can get a bit tired from talking and doing interviews all day. Since the hotels where I stay often have television from around the world, and since I rarely watch television at home, at times I simply relax in the evening by flipping through the stations, finding interesting stories and listening to the different languages. 

One such evening last November, I came across a French news channel that was playing a conversation between a reporter and former national soccer team star Marcel Desailly. To explain something of the context of the interview, the French national team was in crisis, struggling to qualify for next summer’s World Cup in Brazil. World press commentary and French public opinion had both turned extremely negative. Desailly, a World Cup winner in 1998 and now a television analyst, was asked about the differences between the French sides he played for and those of today. 

The former captain was straightforward but polite in his criticism of the current generation of French players, saying that they should have qualified easily for Brazil. Furthermore, in his opinion the current team has “far more talent” than the highly successful 1998 or 2000 groups he played with. The difference between the two squads, according to the former captain, was not in talent but rather in character and leadership qualities.

Since November, the situation has changed, or at least the football part has. By triumphing in its final group match against Ukraine, France did manage to win its place for the final phase of the Brazilian World Cup, to the relief of an entire nation. However, many specialists have commented that this result does not alter a basic reality: This is a French side whose performances should be considered mediocre at best. The group has simply failed to reach its potential.

Some of you may be wondering why I am writing about a former French national team captain turned television commentator. My goal is certainly not to write about football (soccer) on this blog, and I do not see myself as particularly qualified to do that. Rather, Desailly’s comments caused me to reflect, not so much about sporting endeavors but more generally about management, and particularly hiring decisions, in our organizations.

Opining on Desailly’s analysis of this team is not what matters to me. What is important is the distinction he makes between talent and character, and the observation that talent alone is never really enough to make an enterprise successful. 

When I heard the Desailly interview, I began wondering why the current business world seems to be so obsessed with the word “talent” in general. Not long ago, I was invited to participate in a webinar with the title “Winning the global war for talent.” (I declined the invitation, but the theme stuck in my mind.) More and more these days, we seem to hear from company executives who say that the road to success begins with recruiting “talent.”

In fact, we are talking about talent so much that the word is starting to bother me. 

When I think about it, I like Marcel Desailly’s distinction. Even as a a casual observer of football, I could see that the victorious 1998 team had a multitude of leaders and self-starters, all over the field. While the current crop of stars may have considerable talent, they seem to struggle to find take-charge players with strong character and a leadership mindset.

We can apply the same concept to business. My experience in various organizations, whether as a hands-on manager, advisor, board member or coach, has led me to believe that we simply hire too many people for their talent. When we make errors of judgement, it is often because we do not evaluate people enough based on who they are, how they fit in, and what kind of character they have.

One of my favorite questions for the entrepreneurs I have coached or taught for the past 15 years is one I ask after they have several years of experience: “In light of what you know now, if you were to look back and consider some of the things you might do differently, or question some of the decisions you made, what would those be?” 

Almost invariably, these entrepreneurs talk about people, and they say they should have hired with a different mindset, especially early in the game. Now, they say they would take more time to interview and put more emphasis  on people’s attitudes, their grit, their ability to listen, their willingness to learn and grow, and to truly be team players

What I hear too often is that hiring mistakes come from focusing almost exclusively on getting the skill profiles and competencies the organization needs, rather than on the character of the individuals in question.

1 Comment

  1. Esther Vogelpoel 8 years ago

    Coming to think of it after reading your blog, character is indeed very much undervalued these days. As a mother of 3 young children, I can see that this process starts at primary schools, where talent is praised (especially the ability to recognize numbers and letters at the earliest age possible) and good character is defined as how well you fit in. It seems to me that we should all take responsibility to balance out this process in favor of the refinement of character, our own and our children’s’, and learn to recognize its importance.

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