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Shyamal Majumdar: Talent that whispers

Companies should put hunger above skill to get that elite performer

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won the women’s 10,000 metres at the London Olympic Games. A day later, Tiki Gilana, a fellow Ethiopian, won the gold for women’s marathon. The next day, another Ethiopian won the bronze for the men’s 10,000 metres.

In case this reads like a laundry list of the world’s best long-distance runners, here’s an interesting sidelight: all of them and many others who between them have won 10 Olympic gold medals and broken 10 world records come from just one with 30,000 inhabitants. The name of the village is Bekoji.

Rasmus Ankersen, a former football player who turned to professional coaching and then to management teaching, pauses at this point and then asks dramatically: Have you ever asked yourself how did one athletics club in Jamaica that trains on diesel-scorched dirt field with a pile of cones and no air conditioning manage to win nine sprint medals at the Olympics? Why do the world’s best skiers come from a northern Sweden village that has just 500 inhabitants? And why do 45 of the world’s 100 best women golfers come from a tiny town around Seoul?

Ankersen, who was in Mumbai last week to attend the three-day Ernst & Young Strategic Growth Forum, says the lesson to be learnt is that talent can be found anywhere and it is a test of the skill of the top managements in companies to spot potential talent and allow them to flower. The mistake managements make is to take the predictable route — best institutes, best educational certificates, best experience and so on. It’s a safe route but the point is it’s also a hugely expensive route.

Ankersen – who prefers to call himself a “High Performance Anthropologist” – gives the example of Usain Bolt who broke all world records at the age of 15. “That’s a talent that shouts. You don’t need any special skills to recruit the Usain Bolts in your company. But since everybody is running after such talent, there are two problems: one, they will be obscenely expensive and, two, chances are they will jump ship before you bat an eyelid,” Ankersen says. So, the trick is to spot “talent that whispers”. That’s what he has learnt after touring the goldmines of talent around the globe over the past six months.

How do you define whispering talent? Ankersen reels out names. For example, Brazilian football team Flamengo had refused to pay for Ronaldo’s bus ticket and turned him down since he was considered too tiny to be an effective footballer. was kicked out of his high school basketball team at 16; and was rejected by all colleges in Jamaica when he was 17. All of them, fortunately, found a mentor who was willing to groom their raw talent.

There are examples from the business world, too. Ankerson cites a fellow Danish — Jorgen Vigs Knudstorp, CEO of Danish toymaker Lego. Knudstorp apparently could not read or spell in primary school. The management guru also quotes research findings that say 35 per cent of the world’s CEOs were dyslexic in the early part of their lives. In short, they were all low-performers early on and found somebody who could spot them and made them go through the grind. Did you know, for example, that the IQ, or intelligence quotient, of most Chess Grandmasters has been found to be just average?

Ankersen says in their desperation to recruit the next superstar, companies often don’t know that there is a big mismatch between what they are looking for and what is decisive in a particular job. That’s because companies give undue weight to existing performance and ignore the potential. Many athletes or CEOs who faced rejection but went on to become legends were average on performance and high on potential.

Take, for example, the Facebook experience. When it started in 2002, the company knew it had no chance to attract talent if it took the traditional recruitment pathway that the Microsofts and Googles of the world ruled. So, it started an online puzzle contest and asked everyone who could solve the puzzle to call the CEO directly for an interview. Academic background didn’t matter, Facebook said. Evan Prisetley, a high-school dropout who was making both ends meet by working for an ad agency website, got the job in 2006. Six years later, Priestley is one of the top performers in the company. Even now, when it is wooed by the best institutes, Facebook recruits a fifth of its employees through that online puzzle.

The bottom line, however, is that it’s not enough to spot raw talent. It’s equally, if not more, important to spot talent who has the attitude to go that extra mile. Here’s some interesting data to substantiate this: high performers all over the world in sports or business have put in 10,000 hours of hard work over the past 10 years — that’s two hours and 44 minutes every day. In short, as Ankersen says, put hunger (mental muscle) above skills to get that elite performance you are looking for.

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