Abandoning Brilliance

Today’s Wall Street Journal excerpted a piece from Time Magazine that’s frightening: “How High-IQ Kids Are Neglected in School” details how U.S. schools spend $8 billion annually on educating mentally retarded students, but only about $800 million on high-achieving students.

We spend one-tenth as much on our all-stars as we do on our poorest performers. What athletic team would do well in competition with that kind of training regimen?

The problem is that organizational America does exactly the same. Training programs are overwhelmingly aimed at remedial skills and most management attention is focused on the poor performers. Bizarre, egalitarian notions of everyone in the workplace being “equal” have tended to obscure rewards for truly outstanding performance. Just as some schools, in the face of political correctness and shrill “multiculturalism,” have abandoned the recognition and esteem historically bestowed on valedictorians and those qualifying for honor societies, business has fallen victim to “team rewards” and “giving everyone a chance.”

(See my current video in my Writing on the Wall series, “Press One for English, Press Two for Common Sense,” for an example of Pitney Bowes sending out a recorded voice mail to its customers from someone with English skills so heavily accented that she was not comprehensible. [http://www.summitconsulting.com])

“The best and the brightest” has become stigma, rather than stellar. There are performers who stand out in a company, and there are employees who lead the way. They deserve not only recognition, but further investment in their skills and potential. By investing in the top five percent of performers to improve their results by a few percentage points, organizations are making a better investment than attempting to bring the poorer performers to “average” or the average performers to slightly above average.

Of course, the pursuits are not mutually-exclusive nor should they be. Yet the 10:1 ratio in the schools is probably just as bad or even worse in business. Rewarding the top sales personnel with a trip to the Caymans is not the same as also investing in their further development. I asked one executive years ago if he would consider sending one of this top business unit leaders to the highly-regarded Harvard or INSEAD leadership programs. “Why should I?” he asked me, “he’s already at the top of his game.”

Consultants should beware not to fall victim to this remedial tropism. It should not require an epiphanic moment for an organization to invest in its most valuable resources. We have to help them understand the ROI.

We have apparently lost our way, and no longer recognize brilliance, achievement, and merit for fear of offending someone, somewhere, at some time. So long as we provide the opportunities to achieve for everyone, we’ve done our job. But if we continue to refuse to appropriately invest in the best then we will reap the whirlwind: Vast landscapes of mediocrity where no one is motivated to take risk or stand out.

We are dulling our competitive edge.

“Let it be understood that we cannot go outside of this alternative: liberty, inequality, survival of the fittest; not liberty, equality, survival of the unfittest. The former carries society forward and favors all its best members; the latter carries society downwards and favors all its worst members.”

— William Graham Sumner
“The Challenge of Facts and Other Essays”

© Alan Weiss 2007. All rights reserved.


2 thoughts on “Abandoning Brilliance

  1. The gifted could use your eloquence before
    they become the used-to-be gifted. Time
    Magazine will soon feature an article,
    “Failing our Geniuses.” With districts nationwide abolishing the role of valedictorian and salutatorian, one must wonder what the schools believe their role to be, if not to foster awesome stu-
    dent achievement. Will future parents and teachers stop telling their kids to do their best? Will we instead ask the children to do no better than anyone else because it might hurt someone’s feelings?
    STOP THE MADNESS!

  2. The gifted need your eloquence before they become the used-to-be gifted. With districts across the nation abandoning valedictorian and salutatorian roles, one is left to wonder what schools wish to foster, if not awesome academic achievement. Will teachers and parents stop encouraging their children to do their best, instead asking them to do no better than anyone else for fear of damaging their self-esteem.STOP THE MADNESS!

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