Developing Talent During a Crisis


Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point and Blink, and a frequent contributor to the New Yorker has a new book out this month, Outliers: The Story of Success which explores the age-old question; what separates super-successful people from the rest of us?  The mythic explanation applied to Carnegie, Morgan and other barons is that these were self-made men who relied primarily on their intelligence, personality and sheer will-power.  In a recent Fortune article, Gladwell talks about how he ultimately came to a different conclusion by doing a deep-dive investigation into more recent examples of the super-successful, like Bill Gates.   What he discovered is that hard-work and practice are important (10,000 hours is the magic number), but other factors are perhaps even more important like social context and timing:

Successful people are people who have made the most of a series of gifts that have been given to them by their culture or their history, by their generation.

This insight has very important implications for businesses intent on developing large numbers of super-successful people.  Gladwell points out that certain business cultures are much more successful than others at developing talent:

Instead of thinking about talent as something that you acquire talent should be thought of as something that you develop.  P&G is a great example of a company that does that and has prospered as a result.  Look around Wall Street, or what’s left of it today, and you’ll see lots and lots and lots of people from Goldman Sachs.  That’s not a coincidence.

But during a financial crisis, would Gladwell expect business to put soft-skill issues like Talent Management on the back-burner so they can focus on more important issues like strategy and cost-management? Gladwell’s answer:

Paradoxically, this might be the perfect time. When it’s easy to make money, you have no incentive to think about development of talent.  Now, you’re forced to.

What Gladwell is getting at here is that people are at the heart of this crisis, and it is great leadership and talent that will navigate the best companies through these difficult times.  However, I would challenge the assumption that there is no incentive to invest in talent when companies are making money.  In fact, firms like P&G and Goldman Sachs are evidence that it pays off to invest in a culture of talent development during the good times, especially because it allows them to survive the challenging times.

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