One talent does not fit all

March 20, 2012 by Wally Bock

I was reading Mike Hoban’s excellent post “Lessons from the Zappos Culture Playbook” when I started thinking about Doreen. Mike wrote about the Zappos culture and then compares it with the culture at Apple. Here’s the line that set off my train of thought.

“I’m currently reading Isaacson’s superb biography of Steve Jobs and it strikes me how very different – culture wise – Apple is from Zappos, yet they both achieve spectacular results.”

“Talent” is like that, too, there is no one “talent” that you can plug in to any company you choose and watch it succeed. And, with all due respect to Jim Collins, there are no generic “right people” that you can identify and then persuade to climb on your bus. Instead, there is a universe of Doreens.

Doreen is my friend’s daughter. She’s smart as a whip and very disciplined. Doreen made the Dean’s List, played varsity sports, and graduated early with a double major. She’s also a people person. If there isn’t a party to go to, Doreen will organize one. Talented, right?

It didn’t seem like that for a while. For a few years after graduation, Doreen tried one job and company after another. Nothing was right. She was often bored out of her skull. She was frustrated when, as she saw it, procedure overruled good sense.

Then she interviewed and interviewed and interviewed with Southwest Airlines. They liked her smarts and her style. And she liked them. Finally, she could let the real Doreen show at work.

If Doreen were in her twenties today, she’d probably fit right in at Zappos. She certainly wouldn’t fit at Apple. She’s got the brains and the drive, but her personality and her values wouldn’t fit the culture.

That’s the big problem with “talent.” It’s not generic. It’s situational. If personal values mesh with the company culture a person can produce top results and reap both formal and psychological rewards. But if there’s no fit, or, worse, a conflict, then that same person doesn’t look very good at all.

Wally Bock is a coach, a writer and President of Three Star Leadership.

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