Many things have been said about talent over the centuries, and not just by wise men or women: in selecting the quotes that follow shortly, I excluded many that contrast talented with genius (and often revealed a tragic lack of modesty). Many of these comments have focused on the application of this charismatically abstract and elusive attribute. Geothe commented that “Great talent finds happiness in execution”, Balzac that “There is no such thing as a great talent without great will power”, Irving Berlin that ”Talent is only the starting point”, and Nero – sadly better known for his violin playing than his leadership – that “”Hidden talent counts for nothing.”

There’s little dissent from that view that talent is always an asset. But while any organisation (or, of course, any right-thinking individual) would want to be confident that they can make the best of ‘A Good Thing’, there is a more basic initial difficulty – not so much of “knowing a good thing when we see it” as of knowing whether what we are seeing is or isn’t A Good Thing.


“[…] that I should say good-night until it be ‘morrow.” Shakespeare, of course: neither the words nor the sentiment were very likely to be those of a football manager. In a sport – and a major business – that inspires such passion, ‘love’ – at least for the manager – can leave the stadium faster than a rock star fleeing the teenybopper crush. At the end of the day, Brian (the words that should start all expressions of football philosophy), it’s all about the numbers. A string of poor performances by the men on the pitch (or, as Charlie Brooker sees them, “22 millionaires ruining a lawn”), and the man who only stands on the pitch for PR opportunities is history. The love may not be lost, but it might be rudely tossed in a plastic sack in the boot of the departing Jag fairly pronto. (Any team managers reading please note: it’s acceptable for departing female Prime Ministers to wave tearfully through the rear window, but footie managers should be prepared for possible ridicule.)

Football, however, seems out of the norm for business. If nothing else, most industries would struggle to survive the churn rate (which does raise the question about where responsibility for team performance ultimately lies, and makes the manager/coach relationship one that might be instructive as a parallel to that between senior leaders and HR – have a read of an early article here about Brian Clough and his relationship with Peter Taylor, for example). Leaving the stage is always unavoidably personal for the individual doing the leaving: the art of the elegant departure lies largely in remembering the bigger picture, and letting go in the way that best serves the interests of those who will remain. This is the thorny issue of legacies, and who they are for: we’ve explored the topic before, commenting at the time:

Your legacy is fundamentally about those you leave it to, rather than about you (which is why the media were less than supportive of Tony Blair’s public concern about his): focus not on being a giant, but on having shoulders that will bear the weight of those that follow.”


If you missed it, Mandleson: The Real PM? (which aired on BBC4 last night) will be on iPlayer for a little while, and was a fascinating but perplexing and frustrating watch. That ‘Real PM?’ was a tease at two levels: not just ‘do they mean Prime Minister or Peter Mandleson’ but ‘was that actually ‘the Real Peter Mandleson’. As a campaign mastermind, the man lives with a reputation for mastery of the dark arts of spin: although it amused him, on camera at least, to be called The Prince of Darkness, I was left wondering just how genuinely it’s a source of pleasure. A reputation for masterful stage management has a downside: we will always be left wondering how much of what we are watching is a performance. Not a fake so much as something that has been polished so rigorously we can no longer truly see it, as what we see when we focus on it are reflections of other things. We may have glimpsed his underpants as he changed trousers between meetings, but his soul remained covered at all times. But like many such ‘fly on the wall’ affairs, it was revealing at other levels: Mandleson may not have been our PM, but it was a programme that provoked interesting thoughts on leadership, loyalty, succession planning, adapting to changing circumstances and authenticity. And, of course, of managing a brand or a reputation.


This review should start with a confession. In the spirit of the one of the ‘Mottos to work by’ at Bully OnLine’s Bad boss jokes page – “Plagiarism saves time”, one of the messages from Bounce has already appears in this blog. When light-heartedly identifying Five Signs You Might Need A Coach, we included “You lack bottom (especially for landing on)”. The inspiration was an example in Syed’s book of the counter-intuitive importance of failure in achieving success, namely Shizuka Arakawa, Japanese figure skater, 2004 World Champion and 2006 Olympic Champion. The point – one of many that Syed makes through the example of sport, but making compelling and interesting challenges to the notion that talent is somehow ‘innate’ – is that effective purposeful practice must embrace failure. To extend our abilities, we must try things we’re not currently capable of, and accept that we may not necessarily succeed at first. Or, to quote the book:

Author Geoff Colvin has estimated that Shizuka Arakawa {…} tumbled over more than twenty thousand times in her progression from five-year old wannabe to 2006 Olympic champion. ‘Arakawa’s story is invaluable as a metaphor,’ Colvin has written. ‘Landing on your butt twenty thousand times is where great performance comes from.’”


A few weeks ago, I belatedly saw An Education, the film inspired by Lynn Barber’s memoirs of her teenage years. Although Ms Barber has made it clear in interviews that the film isn’t a verbatim rendition of her adolescence, the film is excellent: some truly fine performances, a well-written script and a real capturing of the suburban South London of yesteryear. (I grew up about 2 miles from the setting of the family home, and had several attacks of something slightly less fond than nostalgia through the film.) Without throwing in too many spoilers (just buy the DVD, it’s a film worth seeing), it’s a story about life lessons as well as school lessons, and the relative merits of each, illustrated by an academically gifted young girl’s affair with an older man (remarkably, with not just the consent but the encouragement of her parents, all three of them dazzled by social sophistication – and a noticeable whiff of cash).


An article by Carly Chynoweth in the October issue of People Management, Endurance Tests, makes me wonder if the business world has finally come out of a coma. Glancing at the patient’s notes, I notice the first piece of evidence:

… assessments are now being broadened to cover all levels of organisations; talent-spotters are no longer assuming that future leaders or relevant talent can only be found in certain pools of employees” 

OMG, really? They’ve only just discovered this? No wonder organisations have been struggling though the recession. Continuing to scan, the evidence mounts:

Organisations are looking to identify leaders earlier in their careers so that they can equip them with the skills and exposure that they need to progress through the organisation faster… companies increasingly look inward when succession planning.”

Doctor, I’m afraid it’s worse than we first thought. We may have to operate.

…organisations now want the data presented to be aligned with the employee’s capacity to deliver in the role, or against the organisation’s strategy.”

Nurse, we’d better inform the relatives – time is of the essence …


The quote is from Bill Hicks, deceased US comedian, but it swam back into my memory as I alternated between flicking through the pile of unread broadsheet newspapers by the sofa and watching University Challenge. (OK I’m middle-aged and a little sad, but on the basis of Monday’s episode I know more than a whole Oxford college. Allow me some cardigan-clad pride.) The contestants were young, bright and youthful in their anxious optimism. Being Oxbridge students, no doubt they will prosper, but in a year of record numbers of university applicants being turned away (280,000 according to the Independent on Sunday) and high unemployment in the under 25s, Hicks’ question – I’ll replay the joke later – has a new resonance.



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 31 other followers