By Jeff Haden
Years ago, I facilitated a promotion committee made up of shop-floor employees who used performance evaluation data to rank all the eligible employees for a machine operator opening.
Even though Mike (not his real name) was the top candidate, many in the room still had doubts.
“He looks good on paper,” one person said, “but I don’t think he has what it takes.”
Others agreed. Early on, Mike had struggled in his current position. He wasn’t quick to learn. He sometimes needed to be shown multiple times. He wasn’t a “natural.”
I pushed back. It wasn’t fair to bypass him based on feelings rather than objective reasoning.
For a while, it looked like I was wrong. Once promoted, he was slow to pick up basic skills. Worryingly, he made a few of the same mistakes several times.
But once he did know how to do something? He really knew how to do it. Within a few years he was an outstanding machine operator whose skills surpassed those of his doubters. He even went on to earn several different machinist licenses, and later opened his own machine shop.
Mike wasn’t a natural. Nor was he talented.
But that didn’t matter.
Because Mike was exceptionally skilled.
The Difference Between Talent and Skill
Talent and skill are often used interchangeably since the outcome — performing a particular task, hopefully at a high level — is the same. The difference lies in how you acquired that ability, and how quickly.
Think of talent as natural aptitude. My best friend growing up was a natural athlete; he could, to an irritating degree to less talented me, pick up any new sport in no time. (Within the first ten minutes of playing tennis he was already hitting topspin forehands.)
In simple terms, talents are things you have.
Skills, on the other hand, are things you learn. I had to be taught to put topspin on a ball. I had to practice. I had to acquire that skill. It didn’t come quickly.
Again, that’s where the line between talent and skill can blur. We both ended up at roughly the same place in terms of skill, but talent allowed my friend to get there much quicker.
The rate of acquisition is one way to distinguish talent from skill. Mike took longer to learn; he wasn’t as talented as most.
But that didn’t keep him from acquiring exceptional skills.
And Why It Matters
Even so, for years most people couldn’t see past Mike’s initial lack of talent. Since he had started slowly, they underestimated him. First impressions lingered. He was rarely asked to help repair other operator’s equipment. He wasn’t chosen to train new employees, even though he would have been an excellent trainer. (The last person you want to teach you to do something is a person for whom that skill came easily.)
In the eyes of most, he was forever tarred by a “lack of talent” brush.
The opposite also happens. People who pick things up quickly are often assumed to be rated highly for that skill even if others eventually eclipse their skill. “Naturals” were usually chosen to train new employees, with predictably poor results. They couldn’t understand why trainees were slow to learn. They couldn’t explain the steps they performed instinctively.
And they were usually the ones people assumed “have what it takes” to deserve promotions.
Even though the rate at which you acquire a skill is, in the end, irrelevant. What matters is how well you can perform.
Not how long it took you to become a high performer.
Especially for Promotions
Granted, talent often results in a higher ceiling for aptitude. No matter how hard I tried, had he put in the work my friend could have been better than me at tennis, or really any sport.
Even so, assuming people who pick up things quickly have greater long-term growth potential is often misguided. Plenty of talented people top out fairly quickly, if only because innate talent tends to foster a fixed rather than growth mindset.
Plus, your other employees are less concerned with potential than actual. That’s one reason employees are more likely to be happy if their boss was promoted from within, rather than hired from the outside. A Joblist study showed that nearly 70 percent of respondents prefer to be managed by an internal hire — a seasoned company veteran who climbed the ranks — than an external hire.
They know the skills she has. They know the work she put in to acquire those skills.
Again, because what matters is what someone can do, not how long it took them to learn to do it.
The same is also true for you. Don’t have a “talent” for sales? Sales skills can be learned. Don’t have a “talent” for leading people? Most leadership skills — like giving feedback, building teams, setting expectations, showing consideration for others, seeking input, focusing on meaningful priorities, etc. — can be learned.
Granted, talent and skill are necessary to perform at a high level in some pursuits, like music, or sports or acting … but most pursuits — like starting a small business — only require skills.
And with the willingness to put in the work to acquire those skills.