How to Break the Talent Curse

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Jennifer Petriglieri and Gianpiero Petriglieri for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

* * *

In an age when companies wage wars for talent, it is hard to acknowledge that for some people, being recognized as talented turns out to be a curse. But it does. Aspiring leaders work hard to live up to others’ expectations, and so the qualities that made them special to begin with—those that helped them excel and feel engaged—tend to get buried. They behave more like everyone else, which saps their energy and ambition. They may start simply going through the motions at work—or, like Thomas, look for an escape hatch.

This curse strikes the talented even in companies that invest heavily in their development—places where executives are sincerely dedicated to helping people thrive. We began to notice it long ago, when one of us (Jennifer) worked in various multinationals and the other (Gianpiero) practiced as a psychotherapist in a global MBA program. Since then, we’ve studied hundreds of managers and professionals from various sectors and parts of the world—many of whom we have followed over time—and met thousands more in our teaching, consulting, and coaching engagements. Through that work with high potentials, we’ve examined talent development from their perspective and identified common psychological dynamics, signs of trouble, and ways of breaking the curse.

Though the curse can hamper the personal growth, engagement, and career progress of the most gifted high potentials, it can be broken. We recommend three steps.

1. Own your talent — don’t be possessed by it.

Once your talent becomes your identity, every challenge to it (there will be plenty if you are stretching to learn) feels like a challenge to the self. As Laura put it when one peer questioned her ability, “It struck me to my core.” Slavishly bowing to everyone’s expectations, including your own, is no solution; you’ll just become a follower of what you believe others want. Nor is ignoring those expectations; at best, you will be seen as a rebel. Instead, remain mindful of what you need and what others want—without allowing either to consume you.

Striking that balance often involves learning how to accept help, even when you don’t think you need it, rather than going it alone. This is something that Michael Sanson, an executive coach at INSEAD, emphasizes with his clients. “A key shift occurs,” he says, “when a high potential realizes that his or her role is not to deliver more than others, but to deliver more with others.” People sometimes resist feedback and coaching, he explains, because they view both as vehicles for more expectations. When they begin to see the input not as judgment but as a source of support, they become great listeners and fast learners—which helps them perform better and grow as leaders.

2. Bring your whole self, not just your best self, to work.

It’s tempting to show only the shiny, polished facets of ourselves—especially when we value them and others appreciate them. But our greatest talents often spring from wounds and quirks, from the rougher, less conformist sides of ourselves. Much resolve flows from restlessness, creativity from angst, and resilience from having faced challenges we’d rather not share. Managers who are empathetic (and thus great with people) sometimes get overwhelmed by emotions. Don’t fight these darker sources of your talent. Learn to channel them.

The last time we spoke to Thomas, the former private equity associate, he was transitioning into the field of talent management. He brought his business acumen to it, but also a deep personal understanding of how organizations can boost or hinder employees’ growth, and vice versa. His firsthand struggle to develop and thrive at his old firm gave him insight that allowed him to help others develop and thrive. He was no longer just gifted. He was purposeful and revitalized.

3. Value the present.

This is the most important step in breaking the curse. Ask yourself: What if this is it? What if my current work is not a stepping-stone, but a destination? You must invest in the work you’re doing now—make it matter—in order to grow from the experience.

Look at the expectations, the pressures, and the doubts you face as challenges that all leaders face. They aren’t tests for leadership; they are features of leading. They won’t go away once you prove yourself worthy—they’ll only intensify. So now is the time to muster the resources you’ll need to manage them over the long run. And accept that even with plenty of resources, leading will always require courage. As Mette Stuhr, a former head of talent management at a multinational corporation who has taught and coached scores of high potentials all over the world, puts it: “If you wait for it to be safe to speak up, you never will.”

* * *

Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Jennifer Petriglieri is an assistant professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD. She teaches in the INSEAD MBA program and codirects the Management Acceleration Program for emerging leaders along with experiential leadership-development workshops for global corporations.

Gianpiero Petriglieri is an associate professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD, where he directs the Management Acceleration Programme, the school’s flagship executive program for emerging leaders. A medical doctor and psychiatrist by training, Gianpiero researches and practices leadership development. You can follow him on Twitter @gpetriglieri.

Posted in

Leave a Comment