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Can people improve, or is talent a given?

I have to make a tough decision: Abandon my friends, or believe they can do better


Cary Tennis
December 13, 2011 6:00AM (UTC)

Hi Cary,

I hope you are well. I need some advice.

I have been working as a grunt in a creative industry for several years and finally have the opportunity and connections to launch my own project. I'm nervous, scared, doomed to failure in my head, but excited nonetheless.

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I have formed strong relationships with many talented people who are beyond capable, whom I can count on often, and also strong relationships with those who are a little less talented but are more available and let me change their work in ways that I see fit, whatever the project may be. I have heaped praise on the so-so workers in order to keep them working for me because I know I can turn to them in a pinch. I have come to understand that I'm not actually doing anyone any favors this way, and I should have put an end to this arrangement a long time ago, but it's become a habit and I've had the time to patch up the cracks on shoddy work, so I haven't worried too much about it.

Now that I am going to be busy doing other things, however, I won't have time to fix those things that before were fixable.

So, what I am saying is, some people whom I came to rely on for their availability and OK work are actually, in the stark light of day, not up to my standards. I fully appreciate that this is my fault for enabling. But adding to the dilemma is this:

In this small group of creatives, I feel especially close to and supported by two in particular who are less talented than the others. And since this group of people is so small and interconnected, these two will know that I am extending offers to others on the team and not to them. And I feel like an a-hole about it.  

Should I keep the friendships and put in the extra hours to fix what I don't like, or only hire those who fulfill my expectations and be at peace with being an a-hole who lied?

Afraid of Being an A-hole

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Dear Afraid of Being an A-hole,

People can improve. Given clear feedback, a challenging goal and proper guidance, people who've been doing so-so work can do outstanding work. So when an opportunity comes along, those who've been loyal and hardworking deserve a chance to move up. That's the American way, isn't it?

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It might not be the way business usually works. But it just seems like the right thing to do. I suggest you talk to these people and tell them that a big opportunity has come up and  you want them to succeed and are willing to give it a shot, but that, frankly, the work they've been doing up till now will have to come up to new, demanding standards. Make them understand: This is a new game. The standards are higher. And the risk is higher: You may not succeed. They're going to have to up their game if they want a shot at it. Be clear and then listen. Ask for ideas. Ask for proposals. Make it clear that they are in competition with other very talented and experienced people, and that decisions have to be made on who has the best proposal.

If you are going to lead this team, then you are called upon to motivate these folks to do better. One way to do that is just to spell it out: The people with the best proposal will get the work.

Doing it this way is, of course, the hard way. The easy way is to make something up about how the client wanted these other folks and you had to go along with it because they've worked together before, etc. But I think you'll feel terrible about it if you do that.

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Besides, going with the supposedly more talented people is not a sure solution. They may not able to give the project the attention it deserves. They may not "get" it. They may be more resistant to taking your direction. They may balk at extra work.

So if you value these friends, explain that this next project is a huge step up for you and that everyone involved has to commit to doing better work than they've ever done before. This will give you an opportunity to talk about craft, and to mention some ways their work could improve. That may give rise to the question, Why haven't you said anything about these supposed possible improvements before? To which you may answer that the work seemed fine for the situation, but you're in a new league now. Everybody's having to step up.

That's exciting, isn't it? People like to excel, don't they? So frame it as a challenge.

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Talent is not a fixed asset. People can improve if they work harder and have good leadership. Look at what Coach Jim Harbaugh has done with the San Francisco 49ers. Same team, different coach, different results.

Good luck. I wish you success and continued friendship.


Cary Tennis

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