27 April 2020

The coronavirus and a broadening view of talent

Chair: Ms Liz Greenhalgh

Ditchley’s virtual programme is designed in response to the pandemic and the dramatic effects it is having on our lives. The programme considers our responses in terms of the impact on our personal lives, how we live, our communities and changes in wider society. We will progress to a broader focus on the systems underpinning societies, ranging from ones we can determine such as the economic, to the climate system on which we depend. At the core of this programme is an ambition to understand the challenge and questions this pandemic raises for democratic societies.

In this discussion on talent, participants suggested that it is intangible characteristics such as willingness to take action, disciplined undertaking of small tasks, entrepreneurial mindedness, empathy and an ability to communicate that matter more than educational credentials or insider knowledge in determining who will thrive of fail in moments of adversity. There was acknowledgement of the importance of adversity but a sense that there are too few opportunities for young people to be challenged and overcome adversity in their lives – particularly before entering postsecondary studies.

This moment in time was seen as an opportunity to develop new initiatives that promote service toward larger causes and also to cultivate a sense of family. These families can be seen in a traditional but also metaphorical sense and it was agreed that family is a crucial basis for the fostering of talent.

There was consensus in the discussion that talent constitutes ‘the ability to do something well, particularly without training’ and that it is often innate. In general participants believed that individuals possess considerable resilience but that this resilience is not tested until genuine challenges emerge. Only then is it possible to determine who will rise to the challenge or who will panic. Two characteristics identified as being markers of talent were bias to action and calmness. It was noted that the very best people in the response to the pandemic have been those who anticipate problems and act decisively with clarity of mission. Calmness is necessary because there are few scientific projections that we can rely on; no-one really knows how we will emerge from the crisis. Others referred to the need for an ‘entrepreneurial mindset,’ particularly given the likelihood that many businesses will fall in the coming months: there will be an inclination for organisations to start from zero and build from the ground-up.

At the same time, there was agreement that it is difficult to determine who will actually demonstrate bias toward action or maintain calmness during challenging circumstances. Using a seafaring analogy, it is difficult to know who will react negatively to a period of stormy weather. This is hard to test for; intellectual achievements are not a reliable indicator of success. Adversity was seen as the best possible test and there was a sense that family units are critical in building the qualities needed to endure and overcome adversity. Army service, as is mandatory in some nations, was seen as a potentially valuable idea. More generally, participants agreed that a voluntary corps or innovative opportunities to self-organise in ways that express ‘self-worth’ would be valuable. A ‘Care First’ initiative, building on the Teach First concept, was proposed. We knew before that low pay doesn’t mean low value, that the economics of social care are unsustainable and that a review of how tax actually works is necessary - will these things now happen?

What these ideas have in common is a sense of family and focus on the importance of doing the ‘little things’ – activities such as cooking and cleaning which provide a sense of responsibility. These also promote a sense of professionalism when providing service to others. There was some discussion on lifelong learning and the likelihood that adult education will only grow in importance in this pandemic; however, the focus in the discussion was primarily on the twenty to third age demographic, the ‘world being theirs not ours.’ There was belief in this cohort and their potential but a view that more opportunities to demonstrate resilience would be worthwhile.

Finally, there was emphasis on the accelerating nature of work and life (where what was good beforehand will improve and what was bad could get worse) but also on the fragility of much of what we depend on. A shortage of flour and yeast in parts of London was an example of this. Participants were concerned about negative consequences on mental health during the lockdown and emphasised the need for more supports of disadvantaged groups (e.g. single parents with young children in London). It was agreed that the need for proper childcare supports – training as well as opportunities for autonomy and reward for those who achieve quality outcomes – has had a light shone on it during this crisis. Still, there was recognition of how well families of all backgrounds have responded to the lockdown and that there is cause for celebration alongside caution. For instance, knife crime has plummeted across London. If anything, we are seeing a resurgence of the importance of family units and valuing of the benefits of spending time at home.

In reflecting on talent, participants agreed that the next months will lead to a major revaluation in what we value in people and why. We are only seeing the beginning of job layoffs and this will spur continued evaluation of what characteristics are to be looked for within organisations. Many businesses that have placed staff on furlough have already developed redundancy measures for these same staff when work begins. Large numbers of businesses will go under by June; even more by September. Technology start-ups are rethinking their operations from scratch, evaluating the value of every team member. Some universities will fall during this time. There is a risk in all this that the winners will be those with pre-existing insider knowledge and social connections in whatever field they are in, and that this will trump the recognition of other characteristics such as decisiveness of calmness.

Considerable work will need to be done to prevent against a lapse into valuing only or primarily based on education and social connectedness, and instead recognise and promote those who thrive in adversity regardless of their backgrounds. Organisations would be better to think like football clubs, where the moniker ‘If there is talent, we will find it’ generally holds true, the top performers emerging more often than not from some of the most unusual of places. Instances where people have responded and self-organised outside of institutional structures and been effective in delivering services, point to the value of agility and a need for organisational structures that don’t constrain but rather allow people’s talent to flourish at speed and with service in mind. Parts of the economy are already being restructured.

A step forward, then, in the pandemic will be to move away from a focus on education, insider knowledge and social networks, and look instead at the real challenges that a person has faced and how they have dealt with them. More reflection on the nature of family is also necessary, not only in terms of conventional family units but other types of family – within neighbourhoods, volunteering groups and formal mission-focused organisations. New opportunities for adversity and cultivation of family will be critical moving forward. 

Participants: Ms Liz Greenhalgh (Chair), Ditchley’s Impact LeadEmerson Csorba, Ditchley’s Chief of Staff; Pinar Emirdag, Global Head of Digital Client Service, Digital & Platform Services, J.P. Morgan; Nicholas Ferguson, Chairman, Savills plc; Jan Hall, Founding Partner, No 4; Anthony Impey, Founder, Optimity and Chair, Federation of Small Business Skills Policy Board; Chris Mairs, Venture Partner, Entrepreneur First; Bruce Rigal, Head of Department (Business, Law and Society), St Mary’s University, Twickenham, London; Tony Sewell, CEO, Generating Genius.

The text is a summary of the discussion. No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.