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.

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There were many late nights during Thomas’s time at a private equity firm, but two of them really stand out. On the first, he was at a bar. Earlier in the day, his boss had let him know that he was the top performer in his cohort. Over drinks that evening, he struck up a conversation with a partner at a rival firm. “You’re the guy who closed two deals in six months, aren’t you?” the man asked. It was a moment Thomas had dreamed of and worked for since leaving his small town for college, the first in his family, years before.

On the second, he was at his desk, working on a high-profile IPO. He was the only associate on the deal—the kind of assignment reserved for top talent on the firm’s fast track to partnership. Dawn was breaking, and he had no memory of the past six hours, even though his e-mail and phone logs chronicled a busy all-nighter. A neurologist later ran some tests and warned him of the dangers of sleep deprivation. “I would go to bed at five, wake up at seven with palpitations, and go to work,” Thomas recalled. “I never stopped to think that it was wrong. It’s how it works, I told myself. Everyone does it.”

Thomas slowed down briefly after the doctor’s warning but soon came back full throttle. His talent and drive were intact, though somehow he’d lost his sense of purpose. He created an opportunity for the firm to do a $1.3 billion deal, and then surprised his bosses by suddenly quitting. His performance was strong and his prospects bright as ever, but as he put it when we spoke, he had fallen victim to a vicious cycle: “I did not want to step off the fast track, so I could not slow down.” Thomas felt trapped by his firm’s expectations, but his desire to prove deserving of his bosses’ endorsement kept him from challenging the culture or asking for support. He felt both overwhelmed and underutilized, and concluded that this firm was not the right place to realize his leadership ambitions.

In our two decades of studying and working with “future leaders” like Thomas, we’ve met many people who struggle with what appears to be their good fortune. In most cases, these managers and professionals have been accurately identified as star performers and fast learners. But often, placement on a fast track doesn’t speed up their growth as leaders in the organization, as it’s meant to do. Instead, it either pushes them out the door or slows them down—thwarting their development, decreasing their engagement, and hurting their performance.

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.

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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 dire cts 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.

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