Jay Niblick, a colleague and friend, has recently published a book titled, What’s Your Genius? (available on Amazon.com). In the book, Jay collected data from over 197,000 people in 23 countries in order to identify those key characteristics that separate exceptional performers from the rest.

The results of his research confirmed what I had instinctively concluded after almost 40 years in the business world. He was not able to correlate any single attribute or group of attributes to exceptional performance. Some exceptional performers may have been great at seeing the big picture, while others were great at attention to detail. Some were great at building interpersonal relationships while others were not.

The key finding of Niblick’s research is that exceptional performers do two things. One is that they  know what their natural talents are. He calls this self-awareness.  The second thing they do is apply their natural talents. This is called authenticity. Very simply he found that the only two things that were different between the exceptional performers and all the rest  were their level of understanding of their natural talents and their ability to incorporate those talents into what they did.

You have probably seen the effects of this.  I’ve seen exceptional teachers fail as administrators, exceptional nurses fail as managers, exceptional maintenance mechanics fail as supervisors, and exceptional people fail in the same role with a different organization. In all cases, the person didn’t change, the job changed. They moved from a role that used their natural talents to one that did not.

Niblick also differentiates natural talents from acquired skills. Here is a simple example to illustrate the difference. Natural talents are a person’s innate ability to do something. It may be physical like the natural ability of Michael Jordan, Lance Armstrong, or Michael Phelps, or it may be mental . Natural mental talents explain why some people have an easier time with certain subjects that others or why some people just seem to grasp abstract concepts easier than others.

On the other hand acquired skills are developed over time and are not part of our genetic makeup. While Michael Phelps has incredible natural talent that makes his physiology ideal as a swimmer, he still had to acquire skills to make him better. He had to learn proper techniques for each stroke, how to make turns, and how to start. Each of these was learned and were essential to his development as a world class swimmer. However, no matter how hard others may train or develop their technique, they will never approach the performance of Michael Phelps without the inherent natural talent.

Relating this to the business world, I often am asked to work with people who have “people skill” issues. When I assess the underlying issue, it usually comes down to one of two causes. The first, and easiest to address, is where the person has a natural talent for understanding people, but they don’t show it in their behavior. In this case, we work on specific skills that help the person. The natural talent is there, it just has to be developed.

The second cause is the lack of natural talent or blind spot regarding people. The person simply doesn’t understand people and where they are coming from. When faced with a decision, the impact on people isn’t of concern to them. While a person can always make some improvement, this person will never be as good as someone with the natural talent. The same is true if we are talking about the ability to thing strategically, to plan and organize projects, to pay attention to details, or any other important leadership trait.

It is nearly impossible to develop a competency in someone who does not possess some level of natural talent to begin with. Training and development is not the answer to a lack of natural talent. In my experience, companies spend too much time trying to fix what’s wrong with the person rather than adjusting or adapting the job to the person. The lack of natural talent is only a weakness if it is required for the job. The most effective way to deal with weaknesses is to find ways to make it irrelevant to the job.

Another common practice that this research would challenge is one of developing a list of leadership traits or characteristics that all leaders should possess. I know companies that have twenty or even thirty traits that they expect every leader to either possess or develop. The fallacy of this is that no one can be expected to have natural talents in so many areas and expecting people to develop skills without natural talent is unrealistic.

Also, no two leadership roles are exactly the same. A different set of talents and skills are required depending on the situation. For example, one leadership role may require someone who can see the big picture and think strategically. The need is see the future and lead the organization to it. In another case, the organization may need someone who can turnaround things quickly. It requires talents in the operational area with the ability to prioritize and allocate resources for quick results. Or the organization may have low morale and poor worker engagement and requires someone with the ability to bring people together.

I believe the next big opportunity for breakthrough results is in the whole arena of matching people to jobs, and making changes to take full advantage of the natural talents that exist in the organization. It has the same potential as the quality movement taught companies to focus on processes for breakthrough performance improvement in the last two decades.

As Jay Niblick says, “there is a growing trend of people who feel unfulfilled in their roles and dissatisfied with results or success.” This is THE PROBLEM. Does THE PROBLEM exist in your organization and if so, is it important enough to do something about it?