Don’t retrain the Lionel Messi of your team

When you think of the most successful people and their particular talent, you rarely think of the other skills they may not possess. Robert De Niro, for example, is thought of as an exceptional actor capable of some of the most memorable performances in movie history. Critics don’t discuss whether he lacks the requisite skills to properly fix a central heating system.

Similarly, Lionel Messi is an astounding player who can do things with a football that most of us can only dream about. People in the future will not spend their time debating whether it was Messi or Maradona who was less capable with Microsoft PowerPoint.

A simple conclusion that can be drawn from this is that nobody focuses on perceived skill gaps when a person in public life is exceptional. We are happy for these famous talents to be ever-greater at what they are great at and we don’t concern ourselves with the skill sets they never embraced.

On the other hand, when we think of self-improvement, or when we look to develop our own company’s employees, our approach is always to identify weaknesses that we want to fix. Rather than look at an individual’s strengths and build from there, we go straight to the weakest point and try to make that stronger. But does this make sense?

Let’s take Messi as an example (putting aside his PowerPoint skills for the moment): Even within his own football sphere, it would be an unlikely (and probably deeply unpopular) decision to focus on developing his sadly-lacking ability as a goalkeeper. Even with months of practice, one-on-one training, sports psychologists, and all the motivational coaches that Barcelona can muster, the end result is likely to be a goalkeeper of – at best – decidedly mediocre ability. In the course of this pursuit, months would have been wasted and his area of natural talent would be left dormant.

The effect is the same when a company focuses solely on the weakest skills that its workforce possess. If it targets only those areas that are most frail, it risks training employees to an average level of performance, while failing to properly embrace the true talent it already has on board. It therefore loses twice over – by only adequately addressing genuine skills shortage, and also through failing to fully develop the bright sparks of talent that could drive future performance.

This is not just an important consideration from the perspective of the organisation. For the employee too, the effect of focusing exclusively on areas where they are weak is likely to be a dispiriting and disengaging experience. After all, the weakness might be due to a genuine lack of skill, but could as easily be due to a genuine lack of interest. It is no secret that people are more engaged when they do something they are interested in, and it is no great stretch to see that you are more likely to be enthused by something that you are good at.

Therefore, concentrating on the development of talents can also produce employees who are more deeply engaged and committed to an organisation. They develop areas they are excited by and they can enjoy the success of doing something they are great at.

Neither does this focus mean that a person stays in one sweet spot and doesn’t actually improve. If we draw it back to Messi, you only need to consider how he has concentrated on refining his skills with his left foot this season to see how continuous and startling improvements can still be made, even when a talent is already pretty special.

So there it is: focus more on developing strengths and maybe produce a team of Messis. Just make sure one of them can work PowerPoint.

Ahmad Badr is the chief executive of Abu Dhabi University Knowledge Group

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