Hard Work Beats Talent When Talent Doesn’t Work Hard

Clifton Humility, Leadership, Persisitence

As soon as Karen began to speak, I knew I was in trouble.

The questions began to swirl around in my mind: “How could this be happening?” “Why did I allow myself to get in this predicament?”

Before Karen, Darren delivered his 10-minute speech. He was my roommate and best friend in college. We both studied accounting, sharing many of the same classes. I had seen Darren give several presentations in class, so I knew what he was capable of. I expected him to do a good job and he did.

Karen, on the other hand, was an unknown quantity to me in terms of her speaking skills. Even though I knew her socially, I had never seen her speak publicly before. For that reason, I decided that her speech should be sandwiched between Darren’s and mine.

I figured Darren would give a solid B+ performance, then Karen would speak, and I (a.k.a. “the orator”) would go last. That way, we could start on firm footing and–even if Karen tanked–we would end with a triumphant crescendo by yours truly.

Only it didn’t work out that way…

To say that Karen blew the audience away would be an understatement. Everyone was mesmerized during her entire speech. She made points that were insightful and well-reasoned. On top of that, she was confident, engaging, and funny. If this event were an Olympic event, the judges’ score cards would have been perfect 10’s across the board–even the Russian judge!

Within a couple of minutes into her speech, I broke into a cold sweat. I was woefully unprepared to follow such a stellar performance. When she finished, she headed back to her seat, glanced at me, and smiled slightly as if to say, “You just got served!”

I got up to speak and let’s just say it was a train wreck. If I told you how bad I was, you’d be embarrassed for me. Even years later, I still cringe thinking about it.

During the long walk to my next class all the way across campus, I replayed the events that had led up to this moment: I had been asked by a university administrator to coordinate a student panel as part of my university’s “Corporate Cluster Conference.” Over 200 executives and recruiters from Fortune 500 companies were to attend the session. The administrator selected two other students–Darren and Karen–to join me on the panel.

When we held the planning meeting a week beforehand, we decided who would speak on which topic and the order in which we’d speak. Karen promptly suggested that she go last. I politely dismissed her offer and laid out the speaking order: Darren would speak first, Karen second, and I’d go last. I remember thinking to myself, “If Karen had heard me speak before, she wouldn’t want to follow me.”

Because I had been speaking publicly since I was 9 years old, speaking has always been rather easy for me. When I didn’t have time–or more accurately, when I didn’t maketime–to properly prepare for a speech, I was confident in my ability to “just wing it.”

After a weekend of studying, working on a class project, socializing, and watching way too much TV, I casually jotted down my planned speaking points the night before the session. I said to myself, “I got this” as I swiftly fell asleep.

In what seemed like minutes later–but actually a few hours–I was rudely awakened by my alarm clock. I got up, showered, and put on my best suit and tie. I then headed to the meeting–where disaster awaited me.

The moral of the story: In the words of Tim Notke, “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.” Or as the proverb goes, “Pride comes before the fall.”

I learned this lesson the hard way. There are several nuggets that can be extracted from my painful experience for you personally, for your role as a leader, and for your company or organization:

Takeaways for you personally

  1. Don’t simply rely on your natural abilities; always sharpen your skills.
  2. Ask your colleagues, friends and family to identify your blind spots and go to work on them.
  3. Surround yourself with people who are better than you and who will stretch you.

Takeaways for your role as a leader

  1. Don’t allow your team to rest on their laurels.
  2. Keep raising the bar.
  3. Be deliberate in managing superstars (For tips in this area, check out my article “The Insider’s Guide to Managing a Superstar on Your Team“).

Takeaways for your company/organization

  1. Pay attention to tough criticism from your clients.
  2. Don’t take your position of market leadership for granted.
  3. Ask yourself, “Where are we vulnerable?”

I’m reminded of the words of Michael Jordan who said, “I earn my leadership every day.” These are great words by which to lead and live.

How did you first learn the lesson of working hard to develop your skills?