Kate Haywood: Creating an equal playing field for talent

In a world crying out for new talent, one where workplace culture is in decline, mental illness is on the rise and trust in leadership is at an all time low, we find ourselves between a rock and a hard place when it comes to finding good people. News of talent shortages continue to litter the headlines and murmurings that new leadership is not breaking through as it should, is creating yet more waves amongst the business community in its quest to attract the best candidates.

Coming from a competitive world of sport where the playing field for developing and nurturing talent is equal, it seems quite alien that much of the business word is consistently caught up in a stream of obsolete processes and tick box approaches to recruiting new talent. Similar to the dating app world, the sourcing of new talent today seems to be content with a one-dimensional approach, which inherently ignores the finer details and focuses on the surface only, instinctively ‘swiping left’ if on paper, the shoe doesn’t fit.

A black hole of tick boxes

As a result, great talent is being lost in a black hole of tick box process, which puts those who don’t meet the typical criteria, into the ‘no pile’. Yet in reality we only have to look at some of the world’s most successful innovators to appreciate that just because someone doesn’t have a degree, doesn’t mean they don’t have talent or couldn’t be successful, talent is about more than that.

Of course nothing is black and white and it is not a one size fits all theory, in the case of a doctor or lawyer, they would absolutely need specific qualifications and that’s not up for debate, but for the most part in much of the business and corporate world a degree is arguably not the primary motivator for appointing talent. we have to start looking for new talent beyond what is written on paper.

Face to face interactions tell us a great deal about a person and although we can’t meet with every applicant we should be reading between the lines and searching for signs of stand out characters, those that shine or show difference. Businesses should be looking at skills, at differentiators, a willingness to learn and the dedication to succeed – as in sport this is almost always embedded in the personality not in the number of GCSEs one achieves. But if we are going to give talent a fair chance, we have to make changes.

Looking beyond the talent clichés

Fear is a big barrier to lost talent; people worry about risk, yet nobody ever succeeded without taking risks. In sport, we take gambles all of the time. We don’t know if we’ll achieve our ultimate goals, we don’t know if we’ll make it to the Olympics or win a medal but all we do know is we have to try and aim high if we are to be the best at what we do. The same applies in business but the difference is, in sport we get a fair playing field to give it our best shot.

Excuses are lazy but common; businesses have systems and processes in place and despite the fact that some of it is out dated, who has the time to change it, to review it or to contest it? So, the circle continues and potential talent remains locked in space and out of reach. Is it time for us to look beyond the clichés if we are to truly free up the vast talent that is out there?

As a sports professional who retired in her 20s, landing a job outside of that world was beyond tricky. You bang on the right doors, but people sing a familiar tune: you don’t have the right experience, you don’t have a degree, you don’t know this industry so how can you be successful in this role. Interestingly, in sport as a swimmer, you all start out in the same way, with the same chances. You all get into the same water or pool, you train in the same key skills and what you do with those skills or where you take them is down to you as an individual. So one could argue that the playing field in sport is equal. Yet the reverse is true in business.

Talent can’t be judged on paper

In business we place so much judgement on background, social status, political views, education and perceived ‘fit’. On a rugby or football pitch, everyone has the same chances of winning that day, it doesn’t matter what their background is, what their social status is etc. there is diversity in sport but everyone has a common goal, they all want to win and succeed. Sport brings people together in a positive way, as a team with shared visions, stand out characters that are not valued by what is written on paper, but by what they do in the real world.

Business can learn a lot from the world of sport in its approach to finding new talent because all talent matters. Winners will usually go that extra mile to achieve their goals and it is that ‘differentiator’ that HR teams and employers need to look for when appointing someone new, but we need to widen the net to find those people.

The question is, is there a way to showcase the diversity of talent out there even if it is not where you might expect it to be? We are all guilty of networking in our comfort zones, how often would a lawyer consider meeting with a plumber to share knowledge and learn from one another? We tend to veer away from what we believe is irrelevant to our industry.Yet that closes doors of opportunity, what we need to do is break down those barriers, network outside of our usual circles, embrace diversity and bring the spirit of sport and community back into the business world because that is where we’ll find the talent that truly exists today.

Restoring the human touch

Sharing journeys, experiences and building new relationships is part of life both at work and at home, it is also part of what makes us human. Perhaps the search for new talent has lost that human touch?





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Kate Haywood is a former professional Olympic swimmer who competed in two Olympic Games for Great Britain. At the age of 15 she was also the youngest swimmer ever to have represented England at the Commonwealth Games, which resulted in her winning BBC Young Sports Personality Of The Year the following year. Kate was part of the senior team for 10 years and bowed out of the sport after London 2012. Kate now represents thought-leadership firm, EP Business in Hospitality as Talent Ambassador and also spearheads the Emerging Leaders Network, which aims to break down traditional barriers between industries and bring together a new alliance between the worlds of hospitality, law, sport, financial services, sport and entrepreneurs.