A Gold Isn't Guaranteed: Why Skills Are Only Half Of the Equation

As the London Olympics continue on, we're glued to our televisions, mesmerized by feats of power, athleticism and raw skill. In particular, watching gymnastics always results in shock and awe: "did a fifteen-year old really do that?" Yesterday, the women competed in the individual vault event and American McKayla Maroney was the overwhelming favorite to win gold. So overwhelming, that the announcers couldn't stop talking about the "inevitable" win. And then she didn't.Her first of two vaults was fantastic, but on the second she missed her landing and basically sat down on the mat. Contrast that to the vault she did in the team finals that was just shy of perfect (though there's debate on that too), and it seems shocking that she fell. But this isn't about her jump, the scoring or a comparative analysis. Over at The Atlantic they got some handy GIF guides for that. (Yes, you'll see all the videos of the falls).It's an issue of skill being just one factor. Like any professional at the absolute top of her game, Maroney was in the zone last night--you could tell by looking at her. But after it was clear she'd have to settle for the silver, it was one particular sentiment from the announcers that struck me. They called Maroney "the best vaulter in the world"... "just not tonight."

And that's the thing--when she had her near perfect vault in the team finals, it was a different scene, a different set of circumstances. She had the team on the floor to pump her up. There wasn't a guarantee the women would win gold. Her performance was essential to strengthening the team's score. The announcers weren't sure how she'd do. Contrast that to the individual competition where she was the only American on the floor--her teammates were in the stands. And the announcers (well, everyone quite frankly) assumed, and said as much, that gold was a sure thing.

But skills are only half of the equation--and we should all remember that. Think about the college football players who perform great at the NCAA level but fail famously in the pros. So much of the success of talent is about how we behave in the moment and the environmental and cultural factors that support skill deployment. There's no guarantee that a professional who was a star in one environment can replicate that in another.

When it comes to talent--there are no guarantees. We can't assume we've struck gold with a particular hire. Instead, we should get better at looking at all the factors, the environment, behavioral strengths, potential risks or how and when weaknesses occur. Maroney's young, she'll have another chance. And she lost the gold as an individual. But if you bet on gold for a key hire in your company, and they famously fail, there's much more at stake--the team, profits, the company--and maybe even your job.

Job seekers: show you're more than a set of skills.

Recruiters, hiring managers, executives: don't just look for skill. Look for skill plus circumstances.

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