Does Talent Trump Experience?

A few years ago, while watching our sons play a full morning of round-robin travel team basketball to prepare for the season, my friend Bill and I were discussing the 2008 presidential election. While Bill and I both voted for Obama, he had some reservations about his experience, a common theme during the campaign. Indeed, by many standards, Obama does lack governing experience, and he certainly lacks experience on the world stage.

I argued, however, that he has the competencies and talent to succeed, and that in fact, talent trumps experience. Bill agreed, but countered that if we had been able to somehow choose between two equally talented candidates, that experience would have been the deciding factor. I agreed, and aside from our astonishment that we were agreeing with each other so easily, we started to discuss the concepts of talent and experience.

We both agreed that sports was an arena where both talent and experience come into play, and could cite dozens of examples where high school and colleges players, with no experience at the next level, stepped right into the spotlight when they moved to college or the pros. For every 10 players that need to “learn the ropes” at the next level, there’s a Michael Jordan, LeBron James, or Alex Rodriguez who instantly become one of the top players in the game. Talent wins out – and coaches recognize it immediately. When star talent with extraordinary skills arrives on the scene, you put them in the game.

The question is, does that metaphor extend to politics, and the most stressful job in the world? I do think in extends to the corporate world – just look at the concept of top talent or high potentials. Star performers are recognized early, given plum assignments, and move up the organization much more quickly than other employees. It’s common for CEOs to give a star performer a top post much earlier than their experience might dictate, because they believe they can do it. They’ve seen something in their skills or capabilities that tells them “they’ll be great.”

It seems to me that’s what the American voters did two weeks ago – we just “saw something” in Obama that we felt would make him successful. Maybe it was his calm demeanor through a two-year campaign, or his organizational skills. Maybe it was his ability to surround himself with (and listen to) smart advisors. Maybe it was confidence in his intellect, or his public service mentality.

It was probably something different for all of us. This much is true, however – we did elect a candidate with very little experience because we believed ultimately in his capabilities. We acted as one giant assessment center panel, and elected the man we felt had the better skills, and the most potential. Now we’re going to find out if talent truly trumps experience. If it does, it will probably change politics forever, and make us all that much more discerning as voters and talent evaluators.