Is being ‘talent’ a burden or bonus?

3 December 2009
Being labelled "talent" can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand it’s validation that all the hard work and sacrifices have been worth it, on the other there is the pressure of continuing to be regarded as talent. I liken it to training to be a test pilot. Only a few people ever even reach the exacting standards to begin training; being accepted on the course is an accomplishment in itself. If you don’t graduate, your success is regarded as a failure and no one, apart from your immediate family, ever remembers that fewer than 1 per cent of the population have the necessary talents to be considered in the first place. If you graduate and crash the plane, you’ll still be considered a test pilot and probably go down in history as simply unlucky. The parallels are everywhere in business. The key is not to confuse talent with being a leader. Those in the talent pool are constantly called upon to prove themselves. Leaders, however, are a different kettle of fish because they are already considered a success. Most of them will have achieved this by demonstrating talent earlier in their career and then succeeding in the challenges set them. Not all of them will still have the wherewithal to be considered a success in the world they're in. Some leaders are truly inspirational and do an incredible job at the helm of complex and challenging organisations. Some may lead a quiet life, perceived as adequate until the going gets tough when they step up to the challenge and become truly brilliant – the business equivalent of the 15-year overnight success in the music industry. Of course, as in the music business, someone somewhere will be smugly commenting on how they expected nothing less because they had always marked this person out as talent. What about those leaders that start brilliantly and then burn out in splendid style. Think Northern Rock. The downside of always being fast-tracked is that you might never have to live with the decisions you make or have to take responsibility for delivery beyond a 12-month horizon. Similarly, you may have never had to deal with a situation where you couldn’t turn it around immediately, or correct an earlier poor decision. So when adversity hits you may be completely unprepared to deal with it. Leaders can make very public mistakes, which are embarrassing for a bit, but in the long term they survive and show up several months later at the helm of another organisation. I am not sure you ever really know when you have made the move from talent to an established leader until you survive a massive mistake. This is, of course, what drives many leaders to ensure they always deliver to expectations. Many leaders put themselves under a lot of pressure to remain at the top of their game. This demands a continuous stream of focus and effort that isn’t for all. Not everyone who is given the mantle of "talent" will succeed as a leader. Some will be scarred by failure, some will be burnt out by impossible tasks and some will just decide they don’t want the life that being on the talent trail requires. Being heralded as talent is positive for most people, but to not be recognised as talent or no longer regarded as talent, should not be viewed as negative. There are many routes to pursuing a rewarding career, being regarded as “talent” is just one of them. Sam Covell is head of IS procurement at AstraZeneca (
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