Opinion: Why ‘talent’ is an unhelpful way to talk about sales people

September 2, 2016: An article in a 1998 McKinsey quarterly titled The War for Talent changed thinking in the corporate world. The human resources community had, for a while, been looking for euphemisms for “recruitment”, after the word had become tarnished.

McKinsey’s unleashing of the word “talent” – previously limited to the entertainment business – gave recruitment people a shot in the arm. They were no longer just hiring people, they were in a war for talent, much like Hollywood agents! And so now job titles such as ‘Global Head of Talent’ are commonplace.

Why do I have a difficulty with the T-word? Just look at the assumptions underpinning our use of this word, particularly with sales people.

Think for a moment about our people working in a sales organisation being replenished by a Head of Talent. What signal does the word send? It suggests that we have all been dealt a hand of cards in life and that is that. This is what psychologist Carol Dweck calls a “fixed mindset”. It means if we are successful, we attribute the success to our talent.

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Ian Price, Recludo Consulting, says good sales people are not born but made

But people with this mindset crumble in the face of adversity, because it causes them to question their talent. Does this explain the mystery of the confident, high-performing sales person parachuted into a new organisation only to flounder? I believe it does. Conversely, a more flexible mindset, that focuses on growth through the acquisition of skills, makes adversity easier to absorb because it can be viewed as simply another obstacle to navigate, part of the development journey.

 

Why are sales people particularly at issue here? Because sales is more explicitly about performance than any other function in business. We win and we lose very publicly. For sales leaders to deliver an excellent performance against demanding short-term targets makes them closer in many respects to managers of sports teams than it does to their corporate peers elsewhere.

In sales we often draw on sport for motivational and inspirational stories, talks from sporting legends at conferences and so forth. And yet the most valuable lessons come, I believe, less from sports people themselves than from psychologists who have researched what drives success.

First amongst these is Anders Ericsson, who has devoted his career over several decades to what drives exceptional performance in a range of pursuits, from chess and sport to classical music and – yes – sales.

Ericsson argues in his latest book, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, that while innate capability is important, particularly in the rapid acquisition of skills, those that achieve the top level in their discipline are distinguished only by the amount of persistent effort they put in over long periods towards clearly established goals.

So the science is telling us that innate capability, or “talent”, is less important than we might think. Does it have any answers as to what is important? It turns out that it does. Both Martin Seligman and Angela Lee Duckworth have researched performance in sales teams, and have shown that “grit” – the ability to persevere with passion towards long-term goals – and “optimism” – in this context, to experience reversals and not think of them as personal or permanent – predict success in selling. Both can be measured and, more importantly, both can be built.

This is where the use of the word “talent” is so problematic. If we view capability in anything as innate, we are facing a hundred and eighty degrees in the opposite direction from the latest research.

I’ve challenged recruitment people with the ‘T-word’ in their job title and been told something along the lines of: “Well, yes, what we really mean is potential.” But talent is not the same as potential. In this context, it is the polar opposite. Sales is less of a career destination than we would like because it is high-churn; a “talent” mindset reinforces this, at the expense of developing the capabilities that drive success.

The science is out there, but is being ignored. Our sales people deserve better.

Ian Price of Recludo Consulting is an Honorary Fellow of the APS. He is a business psychologist specialising in the science of sales performance.

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