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Are top performers born or made?

This installment of Next Generation Workplace e-zine was inspired by a recent article by "Freakanomics" authors Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt discussing the work of K. Anders Ericsson a psychology professor at Florida State University and his colleagues on how expert performers become really good at what they do. It really got us thinking about how commercial organizations typically recruit and develop people. We discuss below what we believe are some very important implications of this research for corporate hiring and talent development strategies.

Expert performers. Pavarotti hitting the high C. Lance Armstrong vanquishing the Tour de France field. Yo Yo Ma becoming one with the cello. Wayne Gretzky piling up the points. We've all seen these stars in action, reaching the penultimate in their fields, doing things that no one else has done in a seemingly effortless manner. But how did they reach their top-echelon skill levels? Were they simply born to be great or was there something more at play?

The work of academic researcher K. Anders Ericsson and his colleagues sheds welcome light on the question of what matters most in producing high performance. Is it natural ability or hard work? Both are certainly important but which one matters most? For business and HR executives this is not merely an academic question. There is a great deal at stake in terms of how investments in recruiting and developing people are made and the kinds of payoffs they yield. Should you hire only the best - people at the top of their game or with sterling smarts and credentials? Or should you develop unproven but passionate people?

If you believe innate talent matters more, as many large corporations do, then you will build a talent management system that is geared toward finding the brightest minds, attracting them and keeping them motivated and happy in your organization.

However, if you believe that hard work matters more than natural ability then you will take a different approach, not necessarily looking at people with the best credentials, but rather those who exhibit a passion and a commitment to excel at something. You will create a work environment that helps people discover what they love and enables them to become excellent at it.
Experts Are Made Not Born

Professor Ericsson and his colleagues have spent years studying top performers from many different fields - science, mathematics, sports, the arts, business, etc. The team analyzed reams of performance statistics and biographical data as well as volumes of data produced from years of their own experiments with expert performers.

The verdict - experts and high achievers are made far more often than born and the driver of their performance is deliberate practice. The researchers found that deliberate practice develops expertise when it incorporates specific goal setting, gives immediate feedback and focuses on technique equally with results.

These research findings raise significant questions about how organizations recruit and develop high performers. If expert performers are made, then what is your organization doing to manufacture them? Is this even an explicit goal? Is your learning and development capability up to the task? Is it strategic - focused on the future and on a long term vision of competency and performance or tactical - focused on today's performance goals and requirements?

Practice, Practice, Then Practice Some More

Practice is something that we all know from personal experience playing sports or a musical instrument, pursuing hobbies, learning a second language, and so on, is critical to developing skills and performing at peak. Yet in the business world, the concept of conditioning and honing of skills and abilities is not viewed in the same way. It is much more common to learn and develop through the actual work - which certainly has some merits. But few organizations structure jobs and work environments to allow people to systematically improve their performance, for example providing staff with opportunities to develop and hone their skills through offline practice and repetition or allowing them to experiment and take risks to move to the next performance level.

Ask yourself these questions about your organization: What are you doing that helps staff to perform at peak when it counts most? Ironically, here's where play - specifically games - have a valuable role. They promote the critical driver of performance - deliberate practice. Take flight simulators for example - these allow pilots to hone their abilities by confronting extreme conditions and emergency scenarios. In the process, they practice intensively; get immediate feedback on their performance; and master technique.

Help Workers Discover Work They Can Love

One consequence of the finding that people can master anything as long as they have the motivation to work hard at it is that corporate talent management approaches need to support workers in their quest to find things they really want to do. Does your organization have job design and career progression policies that allow workers to discover and develop the skills and the work they love? Do your talent management and development policies encourage changes to jobs and career paths throughout an employee's tenure with the organization not just in the early years?

It appears that old dogs can indeed be taught new tricks if they have the motivation to learn them. Focusing development and retraining resources on people, even older workers allegedly past their prime will pay off if these individuals are highly motivated to learn new skills.

Deliberate practice drives expert performance. Passion provides the motivation necessary to practice rigorously. According to Professor Ericsson, top talents are able to practice long and hard and apply themselves more intensely than also-rans precisely because they are doing something that they love. If you don't love what you do then chances are good that you will never put in the time needed to master it.

According to Ericsson, "..a lot of people believe there are some inherent limits they were born with. But there is surprisingly little hard evidence that anyone could attain any kind of performance without spending a lot of time perfecting it".

Forging The Passion-Practice-Performance Chain

The link between passion, practice and performance suggests two fundamentally different kinds of talent recruiting and development approaches. One strategy is to focus recruiting efforts on attracting talent that has already discovered and demonstrated what they love and excel at and to provide them with a compelling place to stay at the top of their game. This is analogous to the New York Yankees approach of acquiring the best talent available - but it requires deep pockets to sustain.

The other approach is to create an environment that helps people find work they can love and develop the skills and expertise to become top performers. This is likely to be less costly than the first approach but will require more time to show results.

Regardless of which of these strategies they pursue, leaders seeking performance excellence would be well-advised to create workplaces in which passion for work and the deliberate practice of skills are the defining hallmarks.

Does your organization have a distinct approach to recruiting and developing talent? Please e-mail Tony DiRomualdo at to share your experiences and perspectives.

Tony DiRomualdo is a business researcher, author and consultant. His work focuses on how changes in global business dynamics, talent management practices and information technology-enabled tools and capabilities are transforming the workplace. He helps individual leaders and teams to create Next Generation Workplaces. He can be reached at

The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. (WTN). WTN, LLC accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.

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