Identifying Talent – Strictly and The Apprentice Highlight Opportunities

We’ve always enjoyed trying to draw useful procurement and business lessons from popular culture, sport or other unusual sources, so today, let’s look at what we can learn from the Apprentice and Strictly Come Dancing …

Stacey Dooley is doing well in Strictly and may well be the ultimate winner. The audience loves the fact she had never danced before, and she seems very humble, down to earth and basically “nice”. She is a documentary presenter now, and despite her very “Luton” accent, the late great AA Gill in a TV review a few years ago identified her as having a real talent for her work – she has tackled some tough subjects too, like domestic violence, sex trafficking and pollution. She is quick-thinking, empathetic, courageous and shows genuine interest and curiosity, which is a pretty good combination for that sort of role.

She also left school at 16 and then worked as a hairdresser and a shop assistant at Luton Airport. Her chance came in 2008 at age 21 when a production company making a film about the supply chain for cheap clothing sold in our western shops (Blood, Sweat and T-shirts) was looking for some fashion-conscious young people to feature in the programme. She impressed there, and the rest is history. I predict that by the time she is 50 she will be considered a “national treasure”.

Our second case study is a young man called Daniel who featured on this year’s the Apprentice, car-crash TV really, but one episode stood out (on iPlayer here). The teams had to sell modern art; choose an artist to represent, then show and sell their works in a gallery.  Several times during the show, we heard him describing the highly abstract art. At one point, he said to the artist herself about a picture “it almost seems quite dark and sinister from one perspective but then it has this brightness that emits from the centre of the picture – how do you see it?”

“I can only re-iterate what you just said”, the artist replied, before agreeing a higher margin for Daniel’s team. Later, we heard him describing what he saw in a particular painting to prospective buyers. “The deeper tones which dominate, then the vibrancy of the human characters comes through…” My goodness, he sounded convincing, and he sold the art too (his team won).

Now, later he said that he had no idea what he was going on about, and basically, he was just bull****ing. But I disagree. He may have been saying whatever came into his head, and he may have felt he was talking nonsense, but he wasn’t - it was actually perceptive, and he really did sound like someone who had a gift for interpreting the art. He may not realise it, but if he decides to go into the business, I predict he will do very well in the art world.

What can we learn from this? Two related points. If we had seen Stacey in her shop at Luton Airport, we would never in a million years have guessed she could be an award-winning documentary presenter, or indeed a Strictly winner, just a few years later.  And no-one, including Daniel himself, would ever have guessed that he might have an inherent talent for understanding modern art.

So how many other people have latent abilities and qualities that would enable them to do far more interesting, challenging and rewarding jobs than their current roles? We hear stories about refugee kids who don’t speak English and a few years later are off to Cambridge – but there is huge potential in many, many people in every country, organisation and walk of life.

We can’t magically identify and act on this in every case of course, but anyone who has managerial responsibility in any sense can do their bit. The most important lesson is to be open minded as to the potential of people who work for you or with you. Keep your eyes open for evidence that they might have unexpected skills. Consider moves that don’t appear obvious – maybe that category manager who struggles a bit with project management but is hugely persuasive face-to-face might have a more successful career in sales? Perhaps that lady who quietly cleans your office every evening actually qualified as a lawyer back in Syria – and could be your general counsel one day.

That sounds far-fetched, but no more so, I’d suggest, than the last few years of Stacey Dooley’s life. So our message is this - just be aware that there will undoubtedly be hidden stars, hidden talents and hidden potential within the people you interact with every day. And maybe one day you will have the personal satisfaction of being able to help them realise that potential.


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First Voice

  1. Charlie Middleton:

    I think the other way that Stacey’s Strictly story is relevant to procurement is that nobody expected her to be a huge success but she got a break and worked damned hard to shine, and it would be nice if procurement officers (especially in the public sector) looked for potential in bidders who don’t have much track record but who have a passion to succeed and will care about delivering service. Too often we see the same old big firms being awarded contracts even when they have failed in the past rather than giving the little guys a fair chance.

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