Book Review: Talent Is Overrated by Geoff Colvin – an important book, particularly for salespeople

This is a book that has been around for a while and has picked up some very good reviews. We agree, this is an excellent, thought provoking read, and deserves a higher profile.
Talent not being a major part of somebody’s performance make-up seems counter-intuitive. Naturally talented is a phrase we might all use about someone who can do things to an extraordinary standard. But it’s not so.

As long as you have the minimum requirement of capability to perform the task you can develop to the top decile of that particular discipline. But how you achieve that requires a very specific approach.

Firstly be prepared to put in lots of practice, at least 10,000 hours. This figure has cropped up in other research and seems to hold good. Two hours a day for (say) 360 days a year will take you over 13 years. And most world class performers have practiced a lot longer than that.

If that isn’t daunting enough the next key element is based on doing the right kind of practice. Not the typical golf practice you might do at the driving range, hitting a basket of balls for half an hour and thinking you may have improved slightly. No, this kind of practice follows five criteria:

  1. It is designed specifically to improve performance – and is measured accordingly
  2. It can be repeated a lot
  3. Feedback on results is continuously available
  4. It is highly demanding mentally
  5. It isn’t much fun – because it’s so relentless

What happens with a child prodigy? They start their 10,000 hours early and they apply this intensive regime – what Colvin calls deliberate practice.

What stands out when you read the book is how little deliberate practice goes on in the business world. You realise how threadbare the term performance coaching is.

For salespeople this is central. What is the available development stimulus for salespeople? Customer sales meetings, a few joint visits with their manager (if they’re lucky), a ragbag of sales meetings and the occasional training course are the most obvious environments. How much deliberate practice is going on here?


Potential Is For Life – Not Just For Career Launches

When a person starts out on their career they have more unused potential than performance track record. As they become more competent their performance should meet their potential, but it will never exceed it for any sustainable period. Potential limits performance.
Can you increase potential? Firstly there are two kinds of potential to work with – Raw Potential and Developed Potential.

Raw Potential is sometimes used as a proxy for talent. Evidence is increasingly showing this is wrong. See Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers or our book review of Talent Is Overrated for evidence that shows that all Raw Potential does is act as a kind of ‘permission to play’. You need only the minimum requirements to compete, perform and express yourself.

It seems Developed Potential is much more a significant factor. For a physical sport, age will act as an inhibitor, the body can only cheat time for so long. But in a (largely) non physical role like selling, age shouldn’t be a factor.

How does one maintain an upward curve of Developed Potential?

The first thing is the recognition of just that point. Potential is a wasting, not a growing asset. Unless it is managed, focused and worked on it will convert into the graveyard phrase of unsuccessful middle-aged salespeople ‘I have extensive experience’. Experience is the fuel for driving increased Developed Potential. But fuel that isn’t converted into energy becomes a dead weight. It’s what you do with experience that matters. Experience that increases your forward vision and momentum rather than just creating a larger rear view mirror is what we talking about. This is not down to the type of experiences you have but the way you leverage them.

A sales role is (or should be) a particularly experience rich environment, but only if a learning approach is adopted. If not, all the experiences do is confirm prejudices and pre-conceived views.
If you have the right mind-set you can focus on personal development objectives, not just connected to the narrow criterion of sales results but on broader factors linked to improving and extending your own capabilities.
The effort you put into constantly developing your potential will always pay you back. Never outsource the responsibility to your employer, or to leave it to chance, or think that as you gain experience you are developing your potential.

Turing potential into performance should be a conscious, focused activity.

A Call To Arms For A Dying Form Of Communication

Here is the current list of ways you can choose to communicate:


  • Phone – Mobiles and Landlines (direct, home and company)
  • Email (work and personal addressees)
  • Twitter
  • Blogs
  • Texts
  • Fax
  • LinkedIn
  • Facebook (plus several others social networking flavours)
  • and Web Forums/Postings.

Far too many and the choice is increasing. There is one form of communication missing. Spotted it yet? Hand written communication as in Letters, Cards and Notes etc. It’s being squeezed into extinction.

Have a look around your desk area, office privacy screens, notice boards etc. What is most proudly (apart from photos) pinned/stood on display? It’s letters of congratulation, well done cards and thank you notes.

The letter or card still carries a power other forms of communication cannot match. Why? It’s original, a one off, it can’t be duplicated. It’s permanent, it can’t be deleted or manipulated. Somebody made a deliberate effort to create it, with careful thought as to the medium (bought or homemade card) and its appropriateness. Next, effort has had to go into the writing of it, especially a handwritten (the Rolls Royce) version. This is all before the content is absorbed.
All this significance is without also considering what additional intrigue and excitement is bought to the table by the envelope!

Do you keep a memory box? How many emails or texts have you printed out and put in? None to not very many.

The use of hand written communication is dying out, it is becoming rarer to receive, which is why it is even more highly valued.

If you are interested in being an effective manager then the use of recognition and praise will feature in your tools of choice. Written praise, for all the previously stated reasons turbo-charges any verbal praise. It creates a record (which is why some misguided managers say they don’t use it), because people will never throw these things away, not because they wish to use it against their employer but because they value it so highly.

Look round your office see how people value personally written things and think when you last sent someone a handwritten letter or note.
We work in helping organisations improve their levels of employee engagement by creating more effective management practices. For an informal discussion contact us.

How Would Your Party Conference Go?

We’re reaching the end of the main political party conference season, and whilst conferences may lack the cut and thrust of yesteryear, they are still really interesting to observers of organisations in action.
Purists bemoan the lack of free speech and the careful co-ordination of messages, lessons politicians took from the corporate world, yet if your organisation were to run its own party conference how would it go? Let’s take a look at a couple of components.

The keynote speech – always fun to watch, not so much for the content, but for the body language and reactions of the rest of the top team. How would your top team react? Would they be on board with the content? Would they feel that the leader was fairly representing all views? Would they take joint responsibility for the success (or failure) of the speech? Or would they shuffle uncomfortably, thinking the leader was unworthy of their respect and attention? Would they pull faces and snigger, hoping for failure? A strong top team who work together for success and can disagree passionately in private whilst retaining respect for each others contributions makes a big difference to success.

The fringe – if your next organisation wide conference allowed fringe events what would they be like? Would there be events calling for new leadership because of lack of faith in the existing leader? Would there be bitter arguments about the future direction of the organisation with no-one taking responsibility for outlining a coherent vision? Or would there be small teams championing exciting ideas ready to lead projects in the future? Fringe events give a real idea about how engaged the ‘workforce’ is, and how much ownership they’re taking for the success of the organisation, both in the past and for the future.

The Confidence Of Tigers

The regular season for American baseball has come to an end and the post season build up to the ‘World Series’ has begun. The season finished a little late this year, as despite playing over 150 games, the American League Central had to go to a tiebreaker game at Minnesota.
The tiebreaker wasn’t expected. At the beginning of September the Detroit Tigers looked a safe shoo-in having led the league for some time, and with a seven game advantage at the beginning of September. The collapse was momentous, with the Tigers becoming the first team in Major League history to fail to reach the playoffs having had a three game lead with only four games to play.

Watching the collapse has been instructive not only for baseball fans, but for anyone interested in managing performance. The Tigers don’t have a great recent history, their League win was in 1987 and it’s 25 years since they’ve won the World Series, so this was a huge opportunity for them and one which they seem to have worked hard to lose.

So what can organisations learn from the disintegration of such a high performing team? Strategists will point to the rotation of players, wearing out the most successful pitcher too early in the closing games of the season, leaving him unable to contribute at the critical moment. Commentators will point to some unnecessary showboating as some players opted for riskily aggressive plays that would showcase their skills rather than more conservative actions that protected the team. Coaches will ponder whether they were too tolerant of the down time actions of big name players who may have performed well on field but brought unwelcome attention to the team through late night partying and fracas.
All of these elements damaged the confidence and self belief of the team, and they made enough mistakes in the last month to last a whole season; an expensive collapse for the franchise holder. Freezing at key moments affects teams in far less high profile situations and the ability to trust each others’ contribution, challenge damaging behaviours and building each others confidence, is key to consistent team success. To talk more about how you can develop high performing teams in your organisation contact us.

University of Life (UoL) – Does It Mean Anything?

This is often talked about as either a defensive statement made by people who didn’t attend university, or as a slightly pejorative term by people who did attend. In our work we meet many successful people who did and didn’t go to university, we thought it would be interesting to see if we could identify any connecting traits or differences.


  1. If people use the UoL phrase about themselves it’s usually a bad sign for the reason covered in the intro paragraph.
  2. What is interesting about education is how it connects (or not) to learning. From our experience there is no correlation between how much formal education somebody has received and how much learning they continue to absorb and apply.
  3. Next up is experience. Does the experience of going to university beat the experience of not going to university? Given how many students also hold a job down to help fund their degree this distinction is blurring. Also, a lot of people who are 18+ and not at university are unemployed which is not an experience rich environment.
  4. The UoL track is supposed to be more character building. Again that depends on what people do. If you travel the world striving for world peace I guess character is being built, but if the time is spent working (or not) whilst living at home the character is not being necessarily built.
  5. A circumstance where UoL wins hands down is where someone who has been to university thinks and acts in a superior manner simply because that is what they did. They believe they don’t have to learn anything else, or as one of these types put it recently on a workshop “I’ve done with learning, I now want to earn some serious money”. What is interesting is whether they would make such stupid statements anyway, university being a non-contributing factor.

In summary, we could find no general factors that supported the idea that the UoL route made someone a more successful person. In fact, all the data shows is someone who has a degree has much greater earnings potential over their career, but we could find no evidence it made them a better or more successful person in teams where both cohorts existed.


Our (perhaps not very profound) conclusion is University of Life is an empty phrase.