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Talent and Its Enemies 

Gabe Heilig

Founder, Action Resumes—Pentagon

What belongs to you in today’s economy?
In these articles, my aim is to present an approach to constructing a professional life that feels like yours —in an economy that doesn’t really feel like ours .

The truth is: no one owns “their” jobs. We like to talk about “my desk,” “my office,” and “my job”—but none of it is ours. And the strategy most of us use—Getting A Job—is an increasingly dubious way to build a career. We have entered what Christine LaGarde, head of the IMF, calls a “Post-Jobs Economy.” As the pace of change keeps accelerating, the economy’s employment markets are re-organizing themselves around talent, not job titles, and around problems and projects, not pre-defined job descriptions or linear org-charts. The world is changing too rapidly for linear strategies or structures to be effective.

In such a world, depending on a job for economic security is very much like trying to rent the future, without a lease . We pay that rent with our talent, work and time, yet we can be dumped out of “our” jobs any time the folks who own those jobs choose to do it.

However, there’s also good news. One hopeful perspective in all this is that even though we don’t own the jobs we work at, we can own our careers —if we build them. That’s what these articles are about—how to do it, and keep doing it, so the process of owning a career roots itself into our thinking, becoming a natural process that feels nourishing because it has an organic integrity.

The approach I’ll describe in these articles has been effective for me, but I stumbled into it through trial and error. As I reflected on what I’d been doing, I began trying to do it more deliberately. When that seemed to work, I found ways to use it with my clients. In the 30+ years I’ve done this work, I’ve primarily served US Military officers, Federal executives and corporate professionals. This approach works, but it’s not a pill. It takes practice in using new mental models—different maps, paradigms and metaphors than the ones many of us are probably using now. This is an approach, not a “sure-fire method.” It’s not automatic or guaranteed. But while there’s no “formula” for this, there is a form .

However, learning how to use any new tool takes practice. In this case, it takes understanding way and interacting differently with the employment economy, to open opportunities for yourself, your colleagues and allies. In a Post-Jobs Economy, we all need allies to begin to level the playing field. Right now, it’s nowhere close to being level.

The economy is changing from a job-based organizing structure to one in which jobs are increasingly being seen by employers as: short-term assignments linked to specific problems and projects, with no promise of longer term employment; or as repetitive lowpaying service jobs that corporate mega-computers haven’t yet been programmed to replace. In such an economy, career strategies based on Getting A Job leave many of us vulnerable, because they put all our eggs in the basket we like to think of as “our” jobs. Jobs come and jobs go; contracts start and contracts end. What happens then?

How do we remain true to ourselves in an economy that sees us less and less as individuals and increasingly as a de-personalized, collective—a “workforce”?

Are there useful moves we can make independent of the job market?

Talent and its enemies
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in coaching ~5,300 people through career decisions and transitions, it’s this: Most of us are bigger than the jobs we do . We know more than our jobs need us to know; we have more skills than our jobs need us to have; and we want to do more than our jobs often allow us to do. Other than those occasional, memorable moments when we encounter an unexpected problem and solve it on the fly, jobs often don’t require us to be at our best. As a result, many of the contributions we’re capable of making never get made, and our talent for making them goes unrecognized—even by ourselves.

Employers themselves don’t know much about the people they hire. This happens not as an aberration, but as the logical result of how the hiring process works, as they construct it. Employers and their HR staffs focus on whether people can do the jobs they’re being hired to do. Any other skills new employees bring with them to the office are regarded as irrelevant, not worth being concerned about.

In short, employers conduct the hiring process from the outside in. They hire to fill jobs —not to find talent . As a result, employers literally do not know who is working for them. Other than the fraction of a person’s skills that gets used in a job, employers are oblivious to the other talents their employees possess. And their employees get it. And they don’t like it. The latest Gallup survey of worker attitudes revealed that 71% of American workers do not feel engaged in their jobs . It’s hard to build a productive enterprise when 71% of its employees don’t feel engaged in what they’re doing all day long.

Each of us brings talent into the world. Talent is, in fact, part of Nature—genetic in its origins, individual in its expressions. No amount of data, no matter how intelligently it’s been analyzed, can create something new. Only talent can do that. Subjecting talent to Big Data and Data Analytics misses the point.

Talent is what created these tools in the first place.

Organizations like to talk about how “We respect our people,” but they place their bets on efficiency and control. Those feel like safer bets, even if they keep returning the same results. Managers can get frightened of talent, thinking it wants their jobs. Managers often mistrust their talented subordinates when they come to them with good ideas, thinking they’re planning to compete with them for promotions these managers have been waiting to apply for. To many managers, talent seems like a threat, not a gift.

Talent attracts enemies because it can be coached, but it can’t be controlled. Talent usually isn’t interested in rules, and often doesn’t follow them. It will gladly break the rules to create something the rules never anticipated. Rules can’t make this leap of imagination, because rules are bound by—the rules. But Talent can make this leap, and it often does.

Picasso taught this: “ Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist. ” That’s the game Talent wants to play.

Is that the game you’re playing? Do you know? It’s useful to ask yourself questions like this, to challenge yourself this way.

Which game are you playing?

Do you know?

Gabe Heilig has assisted over 5,300 people in advancing their careers. If you have a question, feel free to ask. Other people may have the same question you do and he may answer your question in print in a future column. You can reach him at gabe@ideadesign-dc.com