Poor Talent ID and the Rise of Sustainable Mediocrity

The success of Leicester City Football Club should be seen as a model for re-evaluating outdated notions of talent identification in organisations

Winning the English Premier League wasn’t down to luck, it was down to a potent combination of ‘non-traditional’ talent and leadership that knew how to foster superlative team culture.

Even if you’re not a football fan or based in the United Kingdom, it’s likely that you heard that “underpowered underdogs”, Leicester City Football Club have recently won the Premiere League.

I’m not a football fan, but as a person interested in the application of leadership and the creation of functionally diverse, high-performing teams, I have watched with interest as experts initially besmirched the individual members of the now Premier League champion team on the basis of their lack of providence, the league they were coming from (division 7, in the case of one prominent team member) or simply their general lack of name recognition.

As the season moved on I began to wince as they took their early lumps with some difficult winnable losses, but when they finally started to win, and even when they began to string together runs of form unmatched by the more usual championship suspects, I shook my head as TV pundits, opposing players and coaches continued to talk about their “surprise” and sometimes near incredulity at being bested by these “underdogs” who with every win, continued to “…come from nowhere…”.

At some point, if a team is continually beating expert expectations and consistently winning where they thought it improbable, it is the reasoning behind the expert’s low expectations that should be called into question, not what consistently appears ‘overachievement’ from their perspective.

Now in victory, I am reading how it’s “grit” and “passion” and “heart” that somehow beat the odds and not the interminable underestimation of a fundamentally talented if non-traditionally lead and assembled, team. Also absent is much mention of the strategic and interpersonal skills of a manager written off by the experts before he even took this job.  “Grit” and “passion” are the kind of words we all too often use in faint praise of “non-traditional talent” to make it clear that the key success factors we really consider important like intelligence, technical skill, focus, tenacity, consistency and resilience are not at the core of this achievement. We minimise their success even as it is supposedly praised.

…our managers are positively ill-equipped to manage anyone who hasn’t been “appropriately homogenised”

I write this in the hope Leicester’s season might act as a wake up call for all of us looking at talent in our organisations.  There are numerous companies out there who – either officially or more commonly unofficially –  won’t consider a University graduate who didn’t come from a Russell Group University. That is a fundamentally time-saving, not performance-enhancing decision, to draw from 24 out of the 130 Universities in the UK. It a parochial, historical nonsense and we should stop doing it.

If we delve further into the general, ‘broad and flawed’ perspective on talent in business and education, we find the murky world of “non-traditional talent” where certain types of people are seen as remedial projects.  Sometimes based on protected categories like race or gender, but more often on the University they went to, or the fact they didn’t go to University at all, their accent, birth city or network, certain candidates end up labelled “community outreach” rather than keys to a  resilient and sustainable talent pathway.

We should understand, as Leicester City’s coach Claudio Ranieri and his team’s Thai owners clearly did, that low name recognition (personally or organisationally) and a unconventional providence are truly poor judges of overall success in modern competition.

Leicester City took a team of overlooked, but fundamentally talented, “non-traditional” prospects, paired them with a manager who listened first and then lead a strongly collaborative, true team and garnered – not too surprisingly when you consider this description – sustained success.

It’s time for us to re-evaluate the “non-traditional” label that has become, to my mind, an albatross around the neck of too many talented candidates. Instead we should scrutinise if we now select talent not on the basis of best potential, but rather the easiest fit.

We need to examine whether we select candidates from, for example, the Russell Group of Universities not because we know they will all be “better” (whatever that means) but because we know our managers are positively ill-equipped to manage anyone who hasn’t been “appropriately homogenised” by a similar University experience to their boss.

The current perspective is not a plan for success, it’s a recipe for sustainable mediocrity. Something that should have no place on a football field or in our workplaces.

To discover how APS can help your organisation with talent ID, contact us.

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