Rockstar/Ninja/Guru Wanted

How often have you seen that, either directly, or by implication? Swept along by the fable and self-mythology of the 10x developer, the employer is going all-in on a single spin of the recruiting wheel.

Talk about Risky Behaviour.

Carol Dweck taught us that when you view talent as something you are, your Fixed Mindset also leads to the arrogant, self-serving behaviours often seen in self-describing Rock Stars:

  • The constant need for validation of their elevated status
  • Displays of entitlement and exclusive demands
  • Self-appointed Gatekeeping, to reduce the threat of others’ success

Or as Dweck puts it:

Success is about establishing their superiority, pure and simple. Being that somebody who is worthier than the nobodies.

All this is profoundly damaging to effective teams. Worse than this, the Rock Star in your midst will shy away from the truly challenging work, and anything that requires work to achieve (as only lesser mortals need to work), give up on setbacks, and through their sense of entitled superiority, will encourage similar behaviour throughout the team.

Finally, while very quick to criticise others, your Rock Star will avoid listening to criticism that dents the self-image of The Great I Am. And will hide — to the point of actively lying — those imperfections they find shameful and properly only existent in Lesser Beings.

Fixed Mindset Poster

Fixed Mindset

If this is high risk behaviour in team-members, how much more toxic would it be in a manager? When a manager has an unchanging self-assessment of inherent talent (and to a fixed mindset: how else would they be promoted to management?), they view themselves as The Smartest One In The Room (Enron reference entirely deliberate), they are setting themselves up for uncritical groupthink. Because they are brilliant, all their ideas must also be brilliant, and nothing will go wrong. Imagine what such an attitude would do for your organisation’s ability to conduct effective Risk Management.

Imagine too what an organisation focusing only on what we are already incredibly good at will face in an environment of uncertainty and change. Where you might not be very good at The New Thing. If all you’ve experienced is success, and your self-worth is validated by that, how likely are you to try The New Thing?

In development terms, such a manager does not believe in personal change. An early manager of mine saw my very first presentation to an audience of potential funders: I was incredibly bad. Bad beyond belief. Based on that, she never allowed me to present again. And actively blocked me from training in presentation skills, saying that she was only interested in training strengths.

Once such a person has assessed their team, and divided the sheep from the goats, the competent and talented from the dead wood, you had better never be in the goat pen. Fixed mindset managers do very little development coaching: why bother when people can’t change? And if you do improve, they don’t notice.

Who would want that person in their organisation? Who would want to work for that person? Who could trust that person? What would be the impact on the kind of self-sustaining team needed to build effective software?

Your rhetoric about talent can be so telling. By creating a culture that worships extraordinary talent, you force people to look and act extraordinarily talented, and believe it of themselves. By focusing on success, you force people to where they learned. You might as well hang a sign over the door: Growth Not Welcome Here.

The truth is, skills can be learned. Knowledge can be acquired. Experience can be gained. Good programmers (to pick an example) should be able to pick up a new language, framework or system quickly. Your best bet is to look for people who embody a growth mindset; a zest for learning and teaching, an openness to giving and receiving feedback and an ability to confront and overcome obstacles.

It’s nice to have talent, but that’s just a starting point.


This is a repost of a piece I first posted on Linkedin.

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CC BY-NC 4.0 Don’t Hire for Talent by Martin Burns is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

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