Olympic Success the Key to Spotting Talent?


In 1996 at the Atlanta Olympics the Team GB won 1 Gold medal, in 2012 we won 29 Gold medals – the biggest gold medal haul in modern Olympic history. Can we deduce that within the space of 16 years we have suddenly, magically developed more talented athletes?

Clearly the romantics, especially in the press will like to invoke national spirit and sheer dedication, guts and commitment. All of this is true for an elite athlete to achieve the dream. In fact this is true of all achievers in all walks of life – However, sheer passion and will power does not make you successful on its own. I could train night and day and give my life to marathon running, for example but I will never be an Olympic athlete.

So what is the secret? – Our rowing and cycling teams can point us in a direction. And science and analysis is at the heart of how we select the best sportspeople. Professional Baseball has been doing it for a number of years, the film ‘MoneyBall’ documents the true story of picking players on a number of statistics of performance in certain areas rather than how they look, past history or how the fans and even the scouts rate them!

Ellie Grainger – one of our first female gold medallist in rowing had never stepped into a rowing boat four years ago. How did that happen? What is the secret of UK sport’s success? Does this, perhaps, give us some indication into how we select talent into our businesses? Given that all businesses complain about the lack of real talent in the market? The so called war for talent…

Is this the area the we might learn from sport?

UK Sport has a defined programme of assessing potential rather than relying on the old age pattern of technical mastery driven over years. The process that UK sport put potential athletes through remains highly confidential – and rightly so – however you can be sure that the process is highly scientific and very rigorous.

With businesses all over the world apparently still vexed about issues surrounding leadership ,diversity and worrying about succession issues, is there something we may lift from UK sport. In previous blogs, I have written about the tools that available to select candidates on potential suitability for roles. The industry has come a long way since ‘Psychometric Assessments’ were largely used in graduate recruitment. Now we have a deeper and more scientific understanding of human behaviour at our fingertips that allow us deeper insight to the core behaviours, attitudes of individuals.

The advantage here, which may help us in the challenge around the lack of diversity at senior levels, is that the science is neutral. It wont look at the colour of the persons skin, gender or disability. These science can be applied to Leadership potentials and behaviours as well. Maybe in years to come we will change the pathetic state of diversity in our boardrooms and senior leadership, by applying sound scientific principles in how we go about finding that talent.

In business terms we are currently looking at our Atlanta moment; business in the western world is facing economic challenges, reputations are at rock bottom with financial scandals, and a paucity of diversity represented in leadership. Despite government pleas for business to change this week the UK government reduced the number of women in the Cabinet by 2!

The science cannot change mindsets on their own. I would argue that as HR professionals we can be the vanguard in this change journey for our businesses. This is a huge mindset shift to create. However, there has never been a better opportunity to set the wheels in motion. You never know maybe  HR will also embrace the new science for itself and become less chained to outdated views of what good HR is and where the talent needs to come from….

But I guess that’s another story……

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