September 1, 2011

Challenges Ahead

Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else

by Geoff Colvin. Penguin Group, 2008.

I almost gave up on this book. The first half outlines what doesn't make for success. It's not talent. It's not hard work. It's not intelligence. It's not, it's not, it's not. And I must say, I was not convinced. All his research citings to the contrary, Geoff Colvin, senior editor-at-large at Fortune, just couldn't convince me that dumb, lazy people have the makings of greatness.

But the second half tells you what does work and gives plenty of advice on how you can put it into practice for your organization and for yourself. Once I got to the second half, I made a note to put this on the human resource director's desk.

Turns out the thing that made Mozart a genius, made Tiger Woods a champion and made Jack Welch a great CEO was “deliberate practice.” Deliberate practice has several characteristics:

  • It is designed specifically to improve performance, often with a teacher or coach's help.
  • It can be repeated a lot; a whole lot.
  • It provides continuous feedback.
  • It is more mental than physical and highly demanding.
  • It isn't fun.

Great performers work on what they're bad at, which is what makes them better and why they don't have much fun doing it. The author talks about going to the driving range and working through buckets of balls, going from irons to woods. Since there are about a thousand ways to hit a golf ball incorrectly, every time he hits a bad shot, he corrects one of the thousand, with no idea whether that's really the problem. This is a lot different from Tiger Woods getting specific advice on what he's doing wrong, moving to a less comfortable stance or grip and then hitting millions of balls.

On the more corporate side, Colvin says that “the best organizations assign people to jobs … to push them just beyond their current capabilities and build the skills that are most important.” John Lechleither, president and CEO of Eli Lilly and Co., recommends two-thirds carefully chosen job assignments and one-third mentoring and coaching. General Electric has had great luck with assigning potential high performers to run its transportation business, the one that makes locomotives in Erie, Pennsylvania. The division's manager has to deal directly with CEOs and run a unionized business with a complex product and supply chain—deliberately practicing all sorts of skills at which the manager may not naturally excel.

This goes beyond “grooming” someone for the C-suite. This is a purposeful decision to put them in circumstances where they may fail, while giving them all the possible feedback, mentoring and coaching to maximize the potential for success. And having them emerge on the other side a Mozart.

2030: The Real Story of What Happens to America

by Albert Brooks. St. Martin's Press, 2011.

Take every one of the major forces impacting the United States and wind it out to its logical conclusion and you get a future that it so illogical it's frightening—or you get this book. Albert Brooks is an Oscar-nominated actor (Broadcast News), a comedian and now a writer. This is his first book and a very serious one. Brooks certainly has a handle on the absurdity of the situation we are walking into but there's nothing funny about it. 2030 is not all that far away and, let's just say, the news is not good.

The demographic time bomb is now the size of a nuclear weapon and, what's more, they've found a cure for cancer. That means not only are there lots of what are called “the olds,” they don't die in anything like the numbers they do now and thanks to other medical advances, almost anyone can be kept alive indefinitely. Anyone with the money, that is. A fairly routine stay in the hospital runs $300,000 a week. The giant ballooning of Social Security and Medicare, backed by the massive clout of the AARP, and the indescribably huge deficit mean the country is bankrupt. Not just sort of bankrupt like in 2011 but really, truly bankrupt. The political impasse is now a deadlock. The president cannot govern. No one governs; they all just run for office year-round, raise money and scream at each other. Unemployment is out of control and, between robotics and offshoring, dead-end jobs are all that's available anyway. All this makes for a very pissed off younger generation. And then the largest earthquake ever hits Los Angeles.

The scenario is frightening: an entire city wiped out; millions living in tents, most of them very old; no money to rebuild or compensate them in any way; the government so isolated and focused on in-fighting as to render itself powerless; terrorists targeting “the olds” organizing in basements. Oh, and China. China hasn't gone away. It's gotten more powerful, more innovative and much, much richer. And that pesky currency manipulation problem? No longer a problem; the dollar has long since ceased to be the world's reserve currency.

So, what do you think happens? As I said, the news is not good.

Brooks' characters could be better. The president is believable; the young terrorist is not. An old earthquake victim exists only so he can be bumped off. The doctor who cured cancer is a cardboard cut-out in a white coat. The president's secretary of treasury and love interest is Hilary Clinton-like, only better looking and better dressed. And it all should be funnier. But then, it's hard to be funny when you talk about a future this bleak.