She should not Have been the Successful One

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Going beyond the boundaries of the “obvious” places to find talent is critical to unearthing the hidden diamonds of talent.

Raised by a single mum, both her dad and elder sister had died by the time she was 3 years old. Growing up in the Ugandan slums of Katwe, she was surrounded by poverty and had no choice but to drop out of school because her family could no longer afford to send her. It was a choice between education and going hungry. Literally living day to day, she sold maize in the Katwe street market.

One day she followed her brother to an after-school outreach program run by a gentleman by the name of Robert Katende. It was there that she discovered the game of chess. Mr Katende, who himself had grown up in the slums as a boy, looked beyond the outward appearance of the young lady in front of him and could see her incredible potential. Introducing her to the game of chess and investing in her potential literally changed the course of her life. The investment paid off and she became the first female player in Ugandan chess history to win an Olympiad title. She was eventually able to return to school to continue her education and is currently attending university in the US.

For those of you that have read the book or watched the film, “Queen of Katwe”, you will recognise this inspiring person as Phiona Mutesi.

I recently came across a quote written by the British Chess journalist John Saunders who made the following observation about Phiona’ chess game,

“…placed in the context of her environmental and educational deprivation, her achievement reaching such a level has been awe-inspiring”.

John Saunders’ comment brings to light the significant influence that one’s social environment can play in the lottery of life. In theory, Phiona wasn’t supposed to be the successful one.

I recently mentored a bright, positive and talented 16-year-old who is growing up in the more modest parts of London and who also happens to be one of the main carers for her younger siblings. She has been averaging B’s and C’s in her exams which is very good by any standards. However, when you add the context of her personal circumstances, plus the fact that the class grade average is in the E to F range, it really emphasises the magnitude of her achievement.

In today’s society, too much emphasis in placed on measuring and evaluating an individual’s potential for success by their academic accolades or institutional prestige.

Whilst academic accolades definitely have an important place in the world, we need to get more innovative and expansive about where we look for talent and how we evaluate ones’ potential for success.

1. Social and Environmental Context

Going beyond the boundaries of the “obvious” places to find talent is critical to unearthing the hidden diamonds of talent.

This means considering talent who on paper may not “appear” to meet the traditional measures of academic excellence, however when put in the relative context of their social and personal environments, they are clearly high achievers.

Doing this well requires commitment, courage and creativity. There are pockets of innovation in this space with contextual recruitment and blind hiring platforms that are disrupting and enriching opportunities for the way organisations identify and evaluate talent and potential. That said, there is much more to be done, and a huge opportunity to make strategic investments in finding talent from the not so obvious places.

2. Life Competencies

More emphasis needs to be placed on the life competencies that individuals gain outside of the classroom and academic environment.

Life competencies such as grit, hustle, tenacity, entrepreneurship, and leadership. In fact, it’s these non-academic skills and competencies that ultimately end up differentiating the truly successful in life and business.

In both the cases of Phiona Mutesi and my recent mentee, I have no doubt that they are destined for significant success. However, I believe that the life lessons and skills they have developed at such an early stage in their lives is what will play a defining factor.

Finding talent beyond the obvious places takes work, innovation and leadership. However, the results from the investment can be game changing in enriching the calibre of talent within organisations, and in turn making positive changes in society.

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