LEGAL: Don't be trapped by 'talent'-redefine it instead

April 30, 2007

To succeed at the highest level, businesses must redefine talent. Our wellmeaning quests for the best and brightest talent frequently lead us into painful traps.

The Indiana Pacers have proven this point in dramatic fashion in recent years. Take the Ron Artest saga. Artest is an immensely talented athlete and clearly one of the top players in the NBA, but had highly publicized problems. No doubt his talent brought him many more chances than the 11th player on the roster would have received.

And therein lies the problem: How many employees in companies everywhere are given too many chances because of their immense and unique talents?

The Indiana Pacers are no different than any other business. They simply play out their drama on the most public of stages. Even great managers-like Donnie Walsh and Larry Bird-make this mistake all the time.

Another high-profile (if fictional) example is Dr. House on the popular television series "House." He is as talented a physician as a hospital could ever hope to have on staff, so time and again we see his boss, Cutty, ignore his insubordination, disregard for the rules and downright disrespect.

Again, a doctor with mediocre talent would be out on the street in a heartbeat for the same conduct.

The Pacers and "House" examples illustrate the dilemma we face daily in our companies. As routine manual-labor jobs continue to be shipped overseas, we realize that our competitive advantage is our "talent." So how do you tell your top talent to "hit the road?"

The answer is simple: We must redefine talent. Talent isn't solely that unique genius that makes Dr. House rise above all others in his ability to diagnose diseases. Talent isn't about being the most physically gifted athlete in the NBA. Certainly those are elements of talent, but only elements.

Talent involves being the consummate team player and being part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Bob Knight won championships for years and recently claimed the all-time record for college basketball coaching victories by defining talent in the way I suggest. He took team players who could play within a system and got the most out of their abilities.

Those players won by discipline, team play and dedication to the team and the system. Very few of those players with NCAA championship rings ever made it to stardom in the NBA. Measured by NBA standards of talent, they simply didn't have the physical abilities. But in the true team environment of college basketball, they succeeded and triumphed year after year.

The Pacers relived the Artest saga again with Stephen Jackson. And rumor has it they even looked seriously at Alan Iverson, the ultimate in athletic talent who can't succeed in a team environment. This time the team's leadership made different decisions. How many of us make this mistake over and over and never learn?

Looking back, my greatest mistakes as a business owner have been failing to rid my business of these types of individuals. In each case I prostituted my principles for talent. I buckled in the face of the daunting questions. How can I live without this person and the business and skills he brings to our firm? How will we thrive without him?

Well, in keeping these people I found-as the Pacers did-that keeping them was worse than losing them.

You cannot afford not to send these people packing. Rehabilitation? I've seldom seen it work. Counseling? Training? You are just delaying the inevitable by holding on while allowing the "talent" to wreak havoc as you wait. And the havoc that is visible to you is only a fraction of what is happening under the surface that never comes to light until it is too late.

So with this wisdom, I now have a quicker trigger finger. I am much more apt to choose to deal with the loss of a person than to let that person destroy my organization and my team. No longer do I underestimate the ability of one misguided yet "talented" person to bring down the entire team effort.

Do you have a person like this in your company? Can you live without this person? Trust me, you can't thrive with this person on your team.

Millard is chairman of the Business Department for the Barnes & Thornburg LLP law firm. He can be reached at 231-7803.
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