Talent and Strategy: Inseparable Necessities

By Rick Forbus, Ph.D.

Baseball Boy and Dad/Coach Years ago I was asked to coach a middle school aged softball team. The decision to ask me came late the day before the teams were to meet for the first practice. My two sons, sixth and ninth graders (approximately) were already signed up to play in this league. The league administrator asked if I wanted to select some players for my team since two teams would be formed from the one group of players. These two teams would play other teams and also play each other throughout the season.

I love athletics and have played sports, but coaching middle school softball has never been a desire or goal of mine. Winning is. I gathered my team, which now included my two sons, a decision I made because of my assumed buy-in from them. I also chose Mark, a close friend of my older son to complete my team. Where Mark came up short on speed and agility, he made up for in power to hit the ball out of the park. How did I know? I had watched him and my sons play in the street. The first practice I asked the boys to tell me the goal of a softball game. With hands raised there were several answers, none of which included scoring more than the other team! As we practiced, I continued to remind them that we needed to: (1) stop the other team from scoring by catching well, throwing well and hustling more than the other team and (2) hit the ball hard and run fast to get to the home plate. Lastly, our only other goals were to (3) really believe we could win and allow me to (4) move them around on the field until we found the right combination to win.

We did not have the most talented team, although we had some good athletes. Nor did we have the most experienced players….but we had a winning season! How?

We met our four goals:

  • We stopped the other teams by catching, throwing and hustling more than they did.
  • We hit pretty well…fueled by our fast pace on the bases and a desire to get to home plate.
  • We had “heart” and a desire to win each game.
  • We searched for the correct combination of talent even during games, until we found the right divergence. (Sometimes, a player would play three positions in a game until we found the right combination.)

The premise of this article is: balancing talent and strategy. This is a delicate endeavor in business. In Bill Russell’s (NBA star with the Celtics) book, Second Wind, he states that, we all tried to figure out ways to make our combination more effective.” This idea and discussion was coming from the Celtics who were dominating the NBA in the days of Russell and other great players. I am thinking they had great strategy and great players. The idea of working on moving talent around to find the best combination is not only the result of open and honest great players, but a coaching staff made up of out-of-the-box thinkers who were willing to get on the edge to win.

While we are bombarded with news reports of ethnic war and cultural domination, we miss out on one important lesson: unity lies in diversity.          Simran Khurana

Recently, in USA Today an article covered the 2011 Wal-Mart shareholders meeting in Arkansas. Here is a small excerpt:

Wal-Mart President and CEO Mike Duke outlined a five-point program at the company’s annual meeting (2011) to help the company sell more on the Internet at home and abroad while keeping costs and prices low.

“Our next-generation customer will include millions who are striving to join the emerging global middle class,” Duke said. “They’re connected to the world through smart phones and social media. They’re in charge of when they shop and how they shop, and they know who has the lowest prices.”

Duke said the company has five priorities:

  1. Grow by adding customers, opening new stores and acquiring other retailers.
  2. Keep costs low and pass the savings on to customers.
  3. Build a global Internet business.
  4. Develop talent, including a greater focus on women and minorities. 
  5. Expand the company sustainability effort.

 Duke also promised the company would to do more to develop diverse management and keep striving for higher sustainability goals, which he said customers want to see.

“We are right in the sweet spot of the next generation customer. But to succeed, we must also be the best at how we run our business,” Duke said, adding that turning around the U.S. business “remains the greatest priority for me and the entire Wal-Mart U.S. team.”

The real death of America will come when everyone is alike.          James T. Ellison

My observation of this excerpt is that strategy is important; talent and culture are just considerations. Cultural and human integration are still the “secret sauces” to sustainability. Inspiring loyalty, synergy and providing a climate where diversities of talent can be leveraged are non-negotiable for future business successes. It may not be fair to read too much into the article, however, there is a lot of research that points to the fact that most merger and acquisitions and other business efforts, neglect the human factor. I certainly do not suggest that it is an either or choice, but, rather, a both-and scenario. Great strategies, like Wal-Mart’s above, numbers one, two, three and five, are worthy goals. Although these are worthy goals, they are not about the human integration aspects, like: (1) employee communication skills, (2) executive leadership development, (3) behavioral diversity coaching, (4) soft skill development and (5) cultural improvement. The human factor issues power the fifth goal: sustainability, and also improve turnover ratios. Of course, Trove’s proprietary assessment, the ACL, can completely revolutionize Wal-Mart’s hiring predictability, their turnover ratios and improve their employee, management and executive leadership’s skill development. These improvements actually strengthen the other four goals listed above at Wal-Mart’s shareholder meeting.

The young softball players had heart, great loyalty to each other and to their coaches, they believed they were good (which in reality was not based on their raw talents) and they had created (along with the coaches) a positive culture. A winning culture, that celebrates people’s diversities, personality differences, and allows for healthy opposing viewpoints, will flourish. In softball, in non-profits and in for-profits, a positive culture is the winning ingredient.

It were not best that we should all think alike; it is difference of opinion that makes horse races.          Mark Twain

Like family reunions, companies and organizations must find ways to create a temporary culture, within successive workdays that allows for individual expression and a collaborative oneness.  These synergistic micro-cultures do not just happen, they take as specific a strategy and planning as the financial and project time lines require. Talent development, human behaviors and relationship building are many times placed on the back shelf somewhere by merger and acquisition initiatives. Yet, sustainability, talent retention and predictable hiring practices all are found in the genre of human integration and behavioral science. Like the young softball players, it was half spirit and half game strategy that made them winners. Companies and organizations should work on the balance. Somewhere in this balanced recipe the greatest companies have emerged.


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