The Talent Myth – Are smart people overrated?
Five years ago, several executives at McKinsey & Company, AmericaТs largest and most prestigious management-consulting firm, launched what they called the War for Talent. Thousands of questionnaires were set to managers across the country. Eighteen companies were single out for special attention, and the consultants spent up to three days at each firm, interviewing everyone from the C.E.O. down to the human-resources staff. McKinsey wanted to document how the top-performing companies in America differed from other firms in the way they handle matters like hiring and promotion. But, as the consultants sifted through the piles of reports and questionnaires and interview transcripts, they grew convinced that the difference between winners and losers was more profound than they had realized. “We looked at one another and suddenly the light bulb blinked on,” the three consultants who headed the projectЦEd Michaels, Helen Handfield-Jones, and Beth AxelrodЦwrite in their new book, also called the “The War for Talent.” The very best companies, they conclude, had leaders who were obsessed with the talent issue. They recruited ceaselessly, finding and hiring as many top performers as possible. They singled out and segregated their stars, rewarding them disproportionately, and pushing them into ever more senior positions. “Bet on the natural athletes, the ones with the strongest intrinsic skills,” the authors approvingly quote one senior General Electric executive as saying. “DonТtТ be afraid to promote stars without specifically relevant experience, seemingly over their heads.” Success in the modern economy, according to Michaels, Handfield-Jones, and Axelrod, requires “the talent mind-set”: the “deep-seated belief that having better talent at all levels is how you outperform your competitors.”
This “talent mind-set” is the new orthodoxy of American management. It is the intellectual justification for why such a high premium is placed on degrees from first-tier business schools, and why the compensation packages for top executives have be- come so lavish. In the modern cor- poration, the system is considered only as strong as its stars, and, in the past few years, this message has been preached by consultants and manage- ment gurus all over the world. None, however, have spread the word quite so ardently as McKinsey, and, of all its clients, one firm took the talent mind-setclosest to heart. It was a company where McKinsey conducted twenty separate projects, where McKinseyТs billings topped ten million dollars a year, where a McKinsey director regularly attended board meetings, and where the C.E.O. himself was a former McKinsey partner. The company, of course, was Enron.
The Enron scandal is now almost a year old. The reputations of Jeffrey Skilling Kenneth Lay, the companyТs two top executives, have been destroyed. Arthur Andersen, EnronТs auditor, has been all but driven out of business, and now investigators have turned their attention to EnronТs investment bankers. The one Enron partner that has escaped largely unscathed is McKinsey, which is odd, given that it essentially created the blueprint for the Enron culture. Enron was the ultimate “talent” company. When Skilling started the corporate division known as Enron Capital and Trade, in 1990, he “decided to bring in a steady stream of the very best college and M.B.A. graduates he could find to stock the company with talent,” Michaels, Handfield-Jones, and Axelrod tell us. During the nineties, Enron was brining in two hundred and fifty newly minted M.B.A.s a year. “We had these things called Super Saturday,” one former Enron manager recalls. “IТd interview some of these guys who were fresh out of Harvard, and these kids could blow me out of the water. They knew things IТd never heard of.” Once at Enron, the top performers were rewarded inordinately, and promoted without regard for seniority or experience. Enron was a start system. “The only thing that differentiates Enron from our competitors is our people, our talent,” Lay, EnronТs former chairman and C.E.O., told the McKinsey consultants when they came to the companyТs headquarters, in Houston. Or, as another senior Enron executive put it to Richard Foster, a McKinsey partner who celebrated Enron in his 2001 book,”Creative Destruction,” “We hire very smart people and we pay them more than they think they are worth.”
The management of Enron, in other words, did exactly what the consultants at McKinsey said that companies ought to do in order to succeed in the modern economy. It hired and rewarded the very best and the very brightestЦand it is now in bankruptcy. The reasons for its collapse are complex, needless to say. But what if Enron failed not in spite of its talent mind-set but because of it? What if smart people are overrated?