Saturday, May 23, 2009

Skills, Knowledge, And Talent

Please note that there are several great comments posted at the end of this blog. Be sure to click on the "comment" link at the bottom of this entry to see the comments. And, thank you to all who have shared their views.


We often read or hear about leaders who are described as skillful, knowledgeable, or talented. But, what does it mean to be skillful, knowledgeable, or talented? And, can a person who wants to be a successful leader become skillful, improve their knowledge base, or expand their leadership talent?

Part of the answer lies in the definition of skills, knowledge and talents. Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman examine the difference between skills, knowledge and talents in their book First Break All The Rules.

According to Buckingham skills are the "how-to's of a role" (p. 83). Skills can be transferred from one person to another. A person can learn a how to hold a golf club, build a house, write a sentence, or do arithmetic. Skills are an important part of being successful at any endeavor. And, without skill any resulting action or effort will be clumsy and ineffective.

Knowledge is "what you are aware of" . There are basically two types of knowledge: "...factual knowledge - things you know, and experiential knowledge - understandings you have picked up along the way." (p. 83)

Factual knowledge would be the rules of mathematics, accounting, scientific principles, or other similar fact-based information. Like skills, fact-based knowledge can be learned from others and/or gained through some form of education. (p. 83)

Experiential knowledge is harder to teach. It is less tangible, more related to patterns and connections. To gain experiential knowledge you must take time to stop, reflect on past experiences, and find meaning. Experiential knowledge may be different for each person because each will experience a different pattern of life. (p. 83-84)

Talent is a totally different phenomenon. Talent is the pattern of thinking and feeling that comes from the very core of the individual. Some people care deeply about precision and accuracy, discipline, and responsibility. Others have a drive to compete, be competent, strive to achieve a mission, or dedicate themselves to a certain belief. And, others may feel strong empathy, value interpersonal relations, dedicate themselves to the success of a team, or exhibit great courage in overcoming resistance. (p. 84-85) Buckingham breaks talents into three categories: striving talents, thinking talents, and relating talents.
  • Striving talents explain the why of a person. They help you understand why a particular person cares deeply, and why they try a little harder than others in certain circumstances.
  • Thinking talents explain the how of a person. They explain how a person analyzes situations, how decisions are reached, whether thinking is linear or intuitive process, or is the person systematic or creative.
  • Relating talents explain the who of a person. They explain the relationships the person is likely to build, in whom will the person trust, the way the person will relate to strangers, and expose deep feelings about the way the person will manage interpersonal relationships. (p. 85)

Buckingham says that talents cannot be taught. If a person does not have a particular talent, there is very little a person can do to inject it into themselves or others. Talents are difficult (if not impossible) to transfer from one person to another.

If Buckingham is right, this creates an interesting situation for us in our role as leaders. It becomes essential to understand ourselves deeply; a process that takes dedicated self-examination.

Knowing our own skills, knowledge, and talents is the start. We can then develop ourselves through purposeful learning, receiving coaching, and reflection (making sense of our experiences). We can also make use of this self-knowledge to help us identify people who bring skills, knowledge, and talents to the organization or team that are complimentary to our own.

This self-development takes courage and the ability to admit that we may not have every attribute necessary to create success (or as Dr. Peter Koestenbaum would say, "Greatness").

Relying on others is easier for people who already have a strong relationship awareness skills, or what Buckingham calls "relating talents". (P. 252) It may be harder for people who tend to be autonomous thinkers. But, regardless of your personal talents, being able to bring the right people together at the right time is essential to the success of any endeavor.

If you are interested in doing some meaningful self-reflection, nothing beats having a great coach to guide you along the path. As one of my colleagues (and one of my unofficial coaches) Ray Patchett pointed out to me one day "Even Michael Jordan has a coach." No matter where you are in your career, the corporate hierarchy, or how good you think you are, there is no substitute for having someone who can help you take a realistic look at yourself.

In his article "Teaching Smart People How to Learn" (Harvard Business Review, May , 1991), Chris Argyris points out that professionals often find learning about themselves most difficult. Self-examination and questioning our own behavior is extremely difficult, particularly for those who have achieved some professional status. Having someone who can help you through the discovery process, who cares about your success, opens pathways to greatness that many never discover.

The more you understand about yourself the more you are going to be able to understand others. Also, the better you understand your own skills, knowledge, and talents, the better you can identify where to improve yourself, and when to bring others close to you to help fill in gaps.