Last Sunday, the Australian Open ended with one of the best Grand Slam finals in tennis history. The dramatic victory of Novak Djokovic once again showed why he is considered the best tennis player in the world today.
After the match I read a post in a fan forum saying that just a couple of years ago, it would have seemed as if Djokovic would never be able to reach the level of Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, who were playing in a league of their own back then. And the author was spot on: Who would have put a bet on Djokovic becoming the best player in the world three years ago?
Obviously, very few did. One indicator: Even the marketing pros at Nike or Adidas didn’t, which is why he had to go with the small Sergio Tacchini brand as shirt sponsor (see my older post on this topic here). The development of Novak Djokovic during the last few years was impressive and unexpected for many. Whom would you have put your bet on three years ago?
In our companies, we also have to place our bets. We have to assess whom we want to cultivate, whom we want to sponsor, whom we put our bets on with respect to their ability to become future leaders.
And there are many tools in place for doing so. Internal Assessment Centers, standardized decision points after a defined number of years on who will be put on the career fast track and who won’t.
The issue with all these approaches: They only give a flashlight at a given point in time. As a result, they can only assess the situation at this point. But people develop differently, some take a leap forward at a later stage of their development than others. Today, Djokovic dominates tennis. Three years ago, he was far from there.
Two other examples, this time from soccer:
The best player in this sport is Lionel Messi. In his early teens, no club in his native Argentina showed enough interest in him to pay somewhat between $500 and $1000 per month for treating a hormonal deficiency in his bones. Luckily someone in Barcelona had a different view not too much later.
Or look at the most expensive deal in the German Bundesliga this winter: Borussia Dortmund agreed to pay Borussia Mönchengladbach roughly €17 million ($22.3 million) to bring talented Marco Reus to Dortmund as of next summer. Reus is a Dortmund native who played for his future club until five years ago, when a youth coach assessed that Reus wouldn’t have the potential to become an outstanding player and made him leave the club he loves. Quite an expensive misjudgment – and we are all but safe from making those misjudgments either.
So how to avoid them?
What I hear often as suggested solution is that the quality of those judging would be the decisive factor. After Dortmund re-hired Reus, German yellow press enjoyed jumping at the fact that the youth coach who expelled Reus is still with the club today. And for a good reason: He is an expert in this field.
Which brings us back to the problem: Potential is difficult to judge. Development is a highly dynamic process, and the development path is not uniform.
Therefore, companies that want to be successful in identifying and promoting future talents must leave the single chance / in or out / point in time type of judgment processes. They need to come up with a process that gives multiple chances over and over again. If the basic potential is there – and it probably is, otherwise the candidates companies look at wouldn’t be there in the first place – a leap in development can come at any time.
Don’t put people on tracks. Create a recurring process instead. What has changed since the last year? Has the candidate obtained new skills, experiences and capabilities? Are we sure she has great potential now? And even more important: What if not? Great companies won’t close the track at this point. They will keep it open and come back to check again. Every day in the interaction with the candidate, or maybe once a month, once a year, whatever, for a recurring assessment of whether the development rocket has taken off.
Djokovic’s countdown took four years which he spent in the top ten without any realistic chance to reach Nadal or Federer. That’s a long time – in tennis and in business. And only those with stamina will see the most beautiful lift-offs.