Out with Talent, In with Fit

Selecting candidates based on technical skills and previous success no longer works. Want to hire for the 21st century? Shift your focus.

By Warren Kennaugh

If your organization is like most others, you spend a ton of time and money sticking to the script.

You know the one: First you identify the specific type of talent your firm needs to succeed, then you target people in your industry who fit the bill. Next comes attracting these all-stars to your company, followed by pulling out all the stops to keep them on your payroll for years to come.

It’s not an outrageous approach. This tried-and-true strategy allows your organization to hire key individuals who have lots of the kinds of technical skills that will make both the employee and the company thrive. After all, if they’ve delivered before, they can deliver again.

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The concept has been lauded and embraced by such luminaries as McKinsey & Company, whose 1997 landmark study paved the way for the talent-based obsession business. But there are three fundamental problems with this plan.

First, the McKinsey research was based on just 18 companies—hardly a statistically significant sample from which to create a theory that has shaped organizational strategy for decades.

Second, it doesn’t actually work. Most of us who have been involved in business longer than a couple of years have personal experience of genuine talent being ushered into the business to great fanfare, only to sink without a trace or implode under the weight of expectations.

And third, if the theory was simplistic and counterproductive when it was first mooted in 1997, it’s downright dysfunctional in 2020.

Back then, the technical revolution was still in its infancy. The Internet was only 7 years old. Today, there are 11 billion devices connected to the Internet, and that number will reach 1 trillion in a matter of years. Credit something called Moore’s Law, which explains why technology can appear to move slowly and then hit exponential growth rates relatively quickly.

In the 1970s, Gordon Moore, one of the inventors of integrated circuits, noticed it was possible to squeeze twice as many transistors onto an integrated circuit every 24 months. That doubling capability and the resulting exponential growth has changed just about every business in every sector in every economy.

In his book How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed, the futurist Ray Kurzweil says there will be 1,000 times more technological change in the 21st century than there was in the 20th.

Not only is this unprecedented evolution escalating change—it’s also reducing costs. For example, scientists spent $2.7 billion on sequencing the first human genome; today, it can be done for just over $100, and by the end of the decade, it will only cost a few cents. History is littered with examples of these types of efficiency leaps with corresponding cost reductions.

The changes are seismic. Their breadth and depth herald the transformation of entire systems of production, business models, management, and governance. And yet, we still believe that if we can just find one or two talented people, the business will be fine. The serial entrepreneur and angel investor David S. Rose has said, “Any company designed for success in the 20th century is doomed to fail in the 21st.”

We’ll take Rose’s quote one step further: Talent is an idea that was doomed to fail in the 20th century. And it’s a catastrophic waste of time and resources in the 21st.

Out with What, In with How

We may have become quite skilled at reference checking, targeted selection processes, panel interviews, and psychological testing. And they all may help to zero in on the capability or talent of the candidates and whether the skills and abilities they possess are the same as the ones required for the role.

But there’s still one area that’s being consistently overlooked, ignored, and trivialized. It’s the intrinsic values “fit”: the drivers between the individual and the manager, the individual and the team, and the individual and the organization itself.

Our ability to do a certain job isn’t just based on whether we have the capability, skill set, and experience to do that job. If it were, the talent myth wouldn’t be a myth. We would be able to hire a talented chartered accountant or marketing executive, parachute her into any business, and she would deliver.

We could purchase a world-class quarterback, throw him onto any football team, and the squad would be on its way to the Super Bowl. It’s a ridiculous thought when expressed in that way. So why do we do it in business all the time?

At the very least, “talent” must be redefined. Ideally, we should replace the word and mindset with “fit” so we can appreciate the complete picture of high performance rather than simply one narrow dimension. The more an individual’s natural strengths, characteristics, skill set, and values fit with what’s required in the role and fit with the manager, team, and organization itself, the higher the performance will be.

Talent only looks at what an employee does: his behavior, capabilities, and skill set. The entire performance improvement industry focuses on that what. Fit, on the other hand, explores how someone does what he does (patterns of behavior) and why he does what he does (motives, values, and preferences), which together indicate where those skills are best deployed (under what manager, in what team, inside what organization).

The only important consideration regarding what someone does is what he does to screw things up, especially when he’s under pressure (derailers). In business, we’re so busy looking outside for the high-performance magic bullets that we fail to look inside the individual via personality and inside the organization via culture. As a result, we completely dismiss the impact of both.

Clearly, talent plays a part in high performance. A new hire must have the skills and abilities to do what the business needs her to do. But to imply talent is all that’s needed is just plain wrong. It’s also profoundly counterproductive and ultimately disheartening to everyone else in the business who is presumed to be untalented.

This dysfunctional hero worship of key individuals creates what the management guru Roger Martin calls the “responsibility virus”: The “talent” steps forward, keen to demonstrate his ability. He pushes into areas that aren’t necessarily in his wheelhouse in a bold attempt to put the wins on the board.

In the meantime, the rest of the employees step back because the “talent” is going to save the day. And the more they step back, the more the “talent” steps forward. This leads to the responsibility virus, which infects the whole business with disastrous results.

We need a change in perspective, especially if we’re to thrive in this rapidly changing, complex, and disruptive business environment. Once we appreciate that what we currently consider as “talent” is just one aspect of fit, then we’ll be in a much better position to manage that environment. If we don’t, we’re headed for oblivion.

In the past few decades, we’ve seen the demise of many corporate giants, including Nokia, Blockbuster, Blackberry, Kodak, and Lehman Brothers. In 2011, Babson College’s Olin Graduate School of Business predicted that in 10 years, 40 percent of existing Fortune 500 companies would no longer exist.

Additionally,  Yale University professor Richard Foster estimates that the average lifespan of an S&P 500 company has decreased from 67 years in the 1920s to 15 years today.

Without an expanded understanding of fit, we’ll continue to waste resources trying to find the perfect person who will turbocharge the business.

Instead, we should help the people we already have understand themselves and one another better so that they can be deployed in the right roles, with the right manager, in the right teams, in the right business. Even with the right skill set and mountains of experience, in the wrong business, with the wrong manager, in the wrong team, talent will curl up and die. 

When a new recruit is uncertain in her environment, her primary focus shifts from performance to sense-making to ensure her personal psychological safety. Humans are driven to survive, and the biological equipment that makes us human hasn’t actually changed that much.

As London Business School professor Nigel Nicholson once said, “You can take the person out of the Stone Age, but you can’t take the Stone Age out of the person.”

This means we’re highly sensitive to danger and the assessment of threats. When left to its own devices, your amygdala will effectively hijack the thinking part of your brain (neocortex) in the presence of anything that’s perceived as a threat to our safety.

You may not have to worry about woolly mammoths or sabre-toothed tigers, but a new job can easily trigger your amygdala-based fear response. You can very easily take your eye off performance and instead try to make sense of your new environment and coworkers.

When this happens, it can be enormously time-consuming and stressful. Your thoughts shift from “How can I deliver on my objectives?” to “Why did my manager say that just now?” to “I’m pretty sure that the rest of the group is conspiring against me.”

To be fair, if you’re the “talent” who has been brought in as the department savior, they probably are. At the very least, the rest of the team will start to step back if they assume the “star” has it covered.

But if an individual understands himself and has a thorough appreciation of the manager, the other team members, and the organizational values, he doesn’t need to waste time sense-making.

If he knows the manager doesn’ t naturally give feedback, but they’ve had a discussion about this natural disconnect and agreed on a plan to counter it, then he doesn’t have to become dejected and distracted and can instead prioritize technical performance.

Conversely, if the individual is very science- and logic-driven, exploring all the options before presenting an opinion could be very frustrating for a manager operating in a fast-paced changing environment where sound decisions need to be made in a short time frame.

Or if the individual is sensitive to the needs of others and has a likeable reputation, he may find it very confusing working in a highly competitive team where every member is in it for themselves.

Without fit, there will be a stifling of talent at best and a total misfire and wrong selection at worst. Individuals need a sense of comfort, psychological safety, and fit to deploy their best role-technical skills and therefore deliver consistent high performance.

While these intrinsic behaviors, values, and preferences are subtler than stated extrinsic values, they’re very consistent and predictable. It’s an understanding of these behaviors, and not “talent,” that form the platform for individuals to achieve genuine fit and ultimately function at their very best. And that applies to everyone— not just the chosen talented few.

Warren Kennaugh is a behavioral strategist specializing in the identification and development of elite performance. He has profiled more than 3,000 world-class athletes and elite business professionals and is regularly called on to share his insights and experience with sports officials, senior executives, major sports bodies, and multinational corporations. He is the author of Fit: When Talent and Intelligence Just Won’t Cut It.