CFO Insights

Is talent really hardwired?

The 'yes' camp still dominates and remains the orthodoxy for many management practices.

Ever since the launch of McKinsey's seminal study on the war for talent in the late nineties, the prevailing wisdom has been that certain employees are more gifted and talented, and should be nurtured carefully and remunerated accordingly to ensure their full potential is reached. This thinking still dominates and remains the orthodoxy for many management practices on the subject.

But is it true to say that certain employees are more gifted than others and deserve special treatment in the finance function and beyond based on their natural ability? When we cast the net further and look at other fields of human endeavour, is there sufficient evidence to suggest that being skilled or talented is primarily a consequence of genetic hard wiring, more down to your chromosome inheritance than a case of practice making perfect.

Well, the evidence it would seem may be less compelling. Human history in fact is littered with examples of genius and talent that perhaps could be attributed more to hard work and sheer endeavour rather than innate talent in a particular field. Tiger Woods and Einstein are obvious examples that reflect the importance of industry, practice and dedication to a particular cause...

The debate has been reignited by some very interesting thinking by Matthew Syed, the British journalist, author and two time Olympian. In his book Bounce: The myth of talent and the power of practice, he articulates a rather contrary view to traditional thinking on the talent issue. In short, the key to achieving excellence is more highly dependent on practice, resulting in neurological brain changes that help unlock high performance. Innate ability starts to take more of a back seat.

So what are the implications for traditional approaches to talent development by organisations? Are some historic practices based on the notion of "A" players currently flawed? What are the implications for developing finance talent and future CFOs? One positive I do take from this is that the employee and finance "talent" pool may be much wider than previously considered. The other positive is about what sort of development interventions are likely to be most effective in developing the requisite skills.

A recent ACCA study on talent management in finance functions revealed significant angst with the effectiveness of current talent management approaches, and noted inadequate development interventions as a root cause of the problem. What came out of the study was that experiential learning, coaching and mentoring were critically missed and highly rated.

This makes sense and lends support to the argument that actually giving people great experience across the finance function and the opportunity to "practice" in business is the surest way to develop the skills needed by finance leaders.

It also implies previous talent development approaches based around the chosen few have overlooked the broader talent base that may exist across the function. To see the full report click here. I'll be returning to the talent issue again shortly...

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Tags: finance, jamie lyon, matthew syed, mckinsey, mckinsey & company, skill, talent management, the war for talent, tiger woods

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About Author

Jamie Lyon is head of corporate sector at ACCA. He leads ACCA’s global research and insights programme focused on finance transformation and the CFO. Prior to ACCA he spent over a decade in industry in a variety of finance management roles with a number of leading FTSE 100 businesses.

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