Talent Management: Most of Us Are Average

Gary Lineker

Those who know me will know that I’m a lifelong fan of Everton – an English Premier League football club that tends to live off its past. I’m with them during the ups and the downs, and the very downs. But above all, I’ve been with them regardless of the personnel. We’ve had great players, some awful players, mostly average players, and they’ve all come and gone. The club remains.

When our star player (and now TV golden boy) Gary Lineker left Everton in 1986, I sulked for about a month. He’d only been with us for a year, and the loss of a 40-goal-a-year striker (with no replacement) was a blow. However, we won the league the season after he left, proving that talent moves on all the time and actually, we operate in a fluid environment in which:

  • exceptional people are few and far between
  • exceptional people aren’t always exceptional
  • most of us are average
  • most average people can be exceptional, given the right circumstances

Nothing is black and white. If, in your business, you have exceptionally talented employees, like Gary Lineker, are you using them to the best of their potential? And how long will that last? Not forever, that’s for sure.

Regression to the Mean

HR Capitalist calls it ‘regression to the mean’ – the idea that we have a shelf life. His conclusion is that HR’s job is to prevent good talent from regression, and if that means moving them on or giving them new challenges, then it’s the most important thing you can do. HR should stop talent from becoming average, but equally, should look for ways to make average people behave exceptionally.

Back in the football world, Everton themselves are facing these challenges. With a team of mostly average players (compared to the moneyed teams such as City and United), Everton are punching way above their weight. They make players like the workmanlike, one-dimensional Tony Hibbert look good, and one-club-man Leon Osman even made the England side. Blending in with them are the exceptional, the gifted and the talented – Marouane Fellaini and Leighton Baines.

Everton’s HR challenge is to ensure that the exceptional players remain exceptional, and that means giving them more challenges. In this context, it’s playing in European competitions against bigger teams. In your everyday business context, it’s winning better contracts, it’s working on more challenging projects, it’s more responsibility. If Everton cannot provide those challenges, the exceptional will stagnate and become average over time.

They will regress to the mean.

In the meantime, the average players need the responsibility, the leadership and the encouragement to become exceptional. In David Moyes – who, unusually for a football manager, is paid more than most of his employees – they have the man to do that. Without those three key areas, average employees are doomed to remain average employees, and that’s not their fault – it’s yours.

Most of Us Are Average. Accept It.

You’re probably average, too. Sorry. But this is cultural, and you can affect change. What makes Everton so good at the moment – with a relatively average set of players – is their culture. They work for each other, and they never stop trying. They defend to the last man, and they’ve worked hard on improving their game.

In your workplace, you might have lots of Tony Hibberts. Your focus should be on getting the most out of their core skills, and helping them develop. Tony Hibbert has received a fair amount of abuse from the fans over the years, but his manager has always backed him and pushed him (sometimes into new positions). The result? A happier, more confident employee who knows exactly what he has to do, and knows that he has his manager’s support.

That translates so well into the workplace, it doesn’t need interpreting. The implication is that you can never stand still.

For the exceptional talent, you have to keep moving so that your talent doesn’t leave. You have to keep providing new challenges, otherwise they’ll either regress or find them elsewhere.

And you have to accept that talent is fleeting – it may well fleet out of your company, so keeping your ‘talent pool’ in shape is essential.

For the average majority, you have to keep providing those three key drivers: constant encouragement, responsibility and leadership. And this, for me, is what talent management is all about – it’s about managing the constant flow of people within the business, and getting the most out of them. It’s about recognising what motivates those with talent, and keeping their levels high, and it’s about recognising what elevates average people to do exceptional work.

And as for Gary Lineker, I still have no idea why he left. But after all these years, I’ve come to accept it. When it comes to your own talent, so will you.

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