As you may have guessed from its title, the book First break all the rules is all about breaking conventions in managing people.

One of those widely held conventions is the belief that “Every employee should be treated equally”. The book explains that this should not be the case, especially after taking into consideration the individual talents of your people.

The definition of the term talent in the book is slightly different from its colloquial use.

Instead of being a set of traits born into a person, the book defines talents as traits that are formed while a person’s brain is being developed. The factors that affect these talents can be external (e.g. experiences, people around the person) or internal (e.g. personal passions, physical limitations).

In effect, your talents can be perceived as a personal filter to outside stimuli, making you react to situations differently from your peers, and this filter is a result of exposure to the factors listed above.

There also comes a point in one’s life (around late teens) wherein brain development on this area slows down. At this point these talents are practically set in stone: changing any one of a person’s talents will require a lot of effort and is likely to fail.

It is also worth pointing out that talents are different from skills and knowledge.

Skills are capabilities required to fulfill one’s role, the one talked about in the Dreyfus model of skill acquisition. They can be taught, transferred from experts to novices. Talents, on the other hand, cannot be taught.

Knowledge is information known by a person, whether through studying (factual knowledge) or experience (experiential knowledge). On its own, knowledge is not useful; it must used in conjunction with skills and talents to be useful.

The book uses their survey of great accountants to differentiate talent from skills and knowledge. Based on their study, they found out that one of the most important talents of great accountants is their innate love of precision. This talent drives them to make sure that the books balance, and they get great satisfaction after achieving this feat.

The “love of precision” is not a skill or knowledge, as it cannot be taught. It is a talent, and it gives some accountants an advantage over others. And as a talent, managers can’t simply inject it to their people as with skills and knowledge.

Take note that talents can be good or bad depending on the situation. A near OC level of love of precision might be good for accountants, but for roles that prioritize speed of processing and accept large margins of error, this talent can be detrimental.

A good portion of the book discusses the implications of understanding that every employee has a different set of talents. For this post, I’ll just discuss what those that struck me the most.

The first implication is already well-known for us in the IT industry: some people are more suited for some roles better than other people e.g. you should not promote your high-performing developer and engineer to a manager role unless you are sure that that person’s talents suit that role. The book explains that it is highly possible that the talents that person uses in order to perform well in his current tasks would not be applicable in a managerial role. Competent managers know this concept as the Peter Principle.

Another implication is the one I mentioned at the start of this post, namely, every employee must be treated differently according to their talents. This is important because unless you are aware of each employees filters, a manager cannot know how to efficiently assign the person to an appropriate role, nor can the manager know how the person would react to stimuli like reward systems. Many managers have tried turning their knowledge workers into universal replaceable cogs only to receive a highly inefficient system in the end.

In line with the previous point, there are many ways to deal with people whose roles and talents mismatch aside from trying to inject talent. You can provide tools to help overcome the negative talents. You can also pair up the employee with other employees to complement those negative talents or at least allow the employee to delegate some of his tasks to those who are better suited for it. Finally, you can simply demote or transfer the employee to a role which better suits the person’s talents. Firing the employee is also a possibility, but that should only be used as the last resort.

The last thing implied by the talent theory that I will point out is that managers must accept that people don’t change much. Stories of transformation are fun to read in books or watch in movies but in real life, forcing someone to change is usually impractical. Sure, if it’s a matter of lack of skills, it can be remedied by quality training. But if its a person’s talents we wish to change, a manager would be better off doing the things mentioned in the previous point so as not to waste time and effort.

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