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Why Talent Management is a sham

Donald Clark guest blogs on the subject of Talent Management and shares the experience of UK No 1 Table Tennis Champion Matthew Syed.

Matthew Syed was the UK No.1 Table Tennis Champion for 10 years. But here’s the killer fact: his one suburban street in Reading produced more Table Tennis Champions than the whole rest of the UK combined.

Why? Matthew was always being told that he had an innate talent, fast reactions, blessed in some way, a gift. This he explained was nonsense, “at best misleading at worst destructive in schools and learning… it was years of high quality purposeful practice”.

Weasel word – talent

Any teacher, trainer, lecturer, coach, mentor, parent, sports person would find his book ‘Bounce’ a profitable read. It’s much deeper than the usual sports’ biographies as he builds his case on the psychology of learning.

He is not one of those sports names who sprint round the conference circuit and give rather superficial, motivational speeches, a biographical tale peppered with a few well worn rugger-type jokes. He’s a thoughtful man who has reflected deeply on why talent is not born but made through ‘deliberate practice’ How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice; relentless, deliberative practice. He’s well versed in the psychology and causal effects of practice and his message is that education and employment in the UK has a deep and disastrous weasel word at its core – talent.

Talent Management is the problem

He was saying that so-called ‘Talent Management’ is a crock, as talent, in the sense of a gift, is misleading – it’s simply the wrong word. Our belief in where talent comes from affects performance. Born not bred, a gift, you need talent – this is the dominant view in western culture. In fact, it’s about effort, practice and tenacity.

Catastrophic problem

This is a catastrophic problem, as when young people believe that ‘talent’ is the key criterion for success, the ones who feel they lack talent (most of us) fail as we simply stop. Kids who fail largely behave rationally. They are taught that talent matters and signs of failure are punished.
This denigrates the idea that effort, application and persistence are what matters. Too many simply give up. This is most apparent in maths, where one tricky problem, one misguided comment by a teacher, will simply stop a child in their tracks and instil the idea that they have no ‘talent for numbers’.
People disparage effort, pretend they don’t study hard for exams, but it matters. This is an ingrained feature of our schooling. And of course, this doesn’t arise from a vacuum – our culture promotes this and it is viciously self-destructive. So what are the features of a good learning environment?


A good start is the work of Carol Dweck who relates motivation and subsequent success to mindsets on abilities. Those with a fixed mindset, often reinforced by educators, see their abilities as fixed and lose the ability to improve and put in the effort to succeed.Those who retain a flexible mindset around effort, not ability, remain motivated and have a higher chance of success. She scotches the old myths around the ‘gifted and talented’. I’ve never yet found a middle-class parents who doesn’t think their child is one of the ‘gifted and talented’.

Failure is the driver

Acceptable failure, Syed claims, is the key to good practice. Failure is an opportunity to adapt and grow. High quality learning experiences focus on deliberate improvement. This means encouraging a culture of deliberate failure and environments where it’s acceptable and safe to fail.

Feedback matters

Aviation is a good example. With 3 billion flights last year and a tiny number of accidents and deaths (around 300), an extraordinary success. Why? They take feedback and continuous improvement seriously. Doctors and radiologists get patient data on outcomes – this matters. These professions embed rich, usable feedback at all levels. Elsewhere there’s often a lack of willingness to learn from mistakes and failure. We need learning experiences that avoid talking at people, preaching masquerading as teaching. We need detailed, frequent and constructive feedback.

Courses don’t train

The education and training world, the learning game, is obsessed by one-off courses. This goes against everything Syed said in this presentation. We ignore what the psychology of learning has been telling us for the last 150 years, certainly since Ebbinghaus laid bare the ‘forgetting curve’ and explained that it is through practice and reinforcement that anything is learnt.
Improved performance not only needs repeated practice but also deliberative practice, (see Anders Ericsson). This, Syed kept stressing, is the only way to succeed in acquiring skills.  I have seen this myself in my own son. He has trained several times a week in TaeKwon-Do since he was 8 years old. That’s over 12 years, on average training 4 times a week, at 2 hours a session. He’s fitter than a whippet, as flexible as a yoga teacher and can knock you out with one targeted kick or punch. Years and years of practice make you an athlete, not courses.


Paul Flowers, the catastrophic leader Chair of the Co-op Bank, was hired on the back of his Myers Briggs scores but was hopelessly inept, had few skills, other than deception but promoted way beyond his abilities by an inept HR department, who thought they were hiring ‘talent’. This is just one feature of amateurish and misleading HR.  I’d like to ban two words in education, training and personnel – TALENT and LEADERSHIP.

Talent is the weasel word that secretly imports a destructive false belief, that talent is what we’re after and not a meritocratic world where effort is rewarded.  It encourages shortcuts. Leadership is in many ways worse as it’s become a plague in training. Leadership training is often just management training iced over with a thin layer of superficial, non-nutritious nonsense about ‘being a leader’.  It’s really just another word that promotes the idea that ‘talent’ matters.


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