Peter Whitehead debates nature v's nurture with Lesley Uren.
Photograph: Rosie Hallam

Lesley Uren and I were destined never to see eye-to-eye. PA Consulting Group’s talent management expert believes certain human attributes are innate – and I don’t. We are heading for an interesting clash.

The topic of “talent”, about which much is said but little known, challenges businesses. Employers and recruiters talk of a “war for talent” and complain of “talent shortages”.

My premise is that people are born pretty much equal and what we call talent is in fact the result of a “specialisation” sparked at an early age, often accidentally, by any number of factors. It puts me in the “nurture” camp, along with the likes of Matthew Syed, the table tennis champion turned writer, who makes the case convincingly – for me at least – in his book, Bounce.

Ms Uren has read Bounce, too, but is unconvinced by its fundamental tenets: she believes that just as people are born with varying physical attributes, they also enter the world with different intellectual abilities.

As a specialist in talent management, Ms Uren advises organisations on how to identify what one of PA’s documents calls “The Golden Few” and give them special attention.

Where you stand in this debate must have a profound effect on how you choose, manage, develop, and reward people. This is how our discussion went:

PW: Whenever I see the latest prodigy, genius, phenomenon, or “natural talent” hailed in the media, I wait for the explanation – and it always comes: “She picked up a racket as a two-year-old”; “he began writing music as a small boy”; “their parents are mathematics professors”.

The “naturally gifted”, it turns out, work hard for their gifts, spending thousands of hours honing their skills. From tennis players to chess masters to musicians and writers, extraordinary skill appears inextricably linked to extraordinary amounts of purposeful practice.

Matthew Syed’s book cites many examples of greatness, from Mozart to the tennis-playing Williams sisters. Tellingly, he describes how three more sisters – Susan, Sofia and Judit Polgar – were brought up to excel at chess by their Hungarian father, László. Each became world class, with Judit being hailed as the strongest ever female player. None was genetically predisposed to excel at their chosen activity; all succeeded through their post-natal nurturing.

I believe we are all born pretty much the same, with certain obvious exceptions, but that from day one we are being shaped by our environment. How I function is innate – the mechanics of how my brain or knee joint works, for example; but the extent to which each function is used has to be down to environment.

For example, the people of Liverpool have a reputation for quick-witted humour. But it seems far more likely that this apparently innate characteristic is learned, rather than being triggered by a particular gene.

Similarly, a recent study by scientists at University College London found irregular children’s bedtimes corresponded with irregular development of the brain and a lower IQ, which would mean the brain and intellect is profoundly affected by circumstances, including parenting.

LU: What people sometimes forget is that talent is about alchemy, not science. You can’t reduce it to being about “just practice” or “just innate ability”.

When, in one person, we see the confluence of a natural gift with the drive to achieve, nurtured in the right environment and honed through hours of practice, it’s like watching magic – and that’s what makes it so thrilling.

Ignoring the role of innate ability is misleading and simplistic – it starts to confuse equal opportunity with the notion that everyone is equal. Malcolm Gladwell – whose book Outliers popularised K Anders Ericsson’s rule that success relies on 10,000 hours of practice – has suggested in a recent blog that only an “eccentric” would claim that “greatness” could be achieved through practice “regardless of a person’s natural aptitude”.

Just as natural talent is sometimes ignored in the argument for practice over talent, so is innate drive. In his book, Matthew Syed describes the Williams sisters, David Beckham and Tiger Woods as all being extremely dedicated. Even the chess-playing Polgar sisters you mention are quoted as saying they “were not pushed; chess fascinated us”. Ultimately, however, Mr Syed underplays the importance of drive.

Since David McClelland’s research in the 1930s, it has been recognised that there are clear and measurable differences between people and their need for achievement (their drive). These differences have been identified across all age groups and appear to be innate. It matters, because drive is clearly related to success and achievement. Infants with higher levels of drive score higher on development scales.

So we are not all “born pretty much the same” – not physiologically, psychologically or intellectually. With the right environment, coaching, support and luck, we can all improve, but our potential will ultimately be limited by our “raw material”.

No amount of training at a young age would have turned me into a female Usain Bolt – and not even 40,000 hours of singing lessons would make me a Kiri Te Kanawa.

PW: I am certain that 10,000 hours of purposeful practice would have made you a very fine singer. I agree that this is a question of emphasis, rather than absolutes, but it is simply too much of a coincidence to accept that sisters specifically brought up to play tennis or chess also turn out to have some mysterious “gift” for it.

Physiologically, we are, of course, unique. But I see very little psychology or intellect in a new-born child, other than an enormous ability to absorb. And, at least to begin with, a child can have virtually no say over what it absorbs and what will shape later development and decisions.

Similarly, “drive” is vital to improved performance, but its own origin seems far more likely to be environmental than “built-in”: nurturing that is supportive, inspirational – or indeed deprived or threatening – is shown by Mr Syed’s examples to be a most powerful of motivating forces.

How we view these things matters greatly, because it affects how we see individuals in the work context. By the time people are old enough to take school tests and go to work, their aptitudes, intellect, talents, and weaknesses are well formed, creating a society of highly varied individuals.

Through use and experience, adults will have developed variations in brain power, physical skills, drive, motivation, levels of creativity, and so on, which enables us to identify “elites”, based on the extent of development in any given area.

We might therefore say nature and nurture amount to the same thing. But if an employer believes membership of an “elite” is down to an innate gift, they will search for, and promote, those they see as having “natural talent” and expect them to be “gifted” at any task they are given – an erroneous, and potentially dangerous, assumption.

There are other workplace dangers, too: a belief in “natural talent” implies there is a limited supply that has to be lured by spiralling rewards; and it leads employers to expect “ready-made talent”, undermining their responsibility to nurture it.

Individuals are also undermined: if they search fruitlessly for their “gift” and attribute failure in developing skills to not being “naturals” at the tasks they try out.

I think the results of this are seen in such phenomena as executive pay levels, so-called “talent shortages”, conservative approaches to recruitment and promotion, and a generally under-motivated working population.

LU: It’s kind of you to think that I could be a fine singer – but as I was asked politely to leave the school choir at the age of about 13, it was clear that even the nuns thought my singing beyond the redemptive powers of practice.

Everyone can improve with training – that fact seems indisputable, but as renowned sports physiologist Dr Ross Tucker says: “Training should be defined as the realisation of genetic potential.”

It is true that how we view things matters, as our biases – conscious or unconscious – do shape our behaviour. Believing that success is all down to training, or alternatively all down to a natural gift, is too simplistic a distinction.

In the workplace, a belief in the former will potentially encourage an individual to spend years of their life pursuing a career that is just not a fit with their natural abilities or inclinations. This is just as cruel to the individual as letting someone languish in a role that does not enable

them to be their best because a hidden talent has not been nurtured

through opportunity and development.

The best organisations understand that “talent” is a sum of several factors. Our research for PA’s “The Golden Few” report shows that even people who work with talent in the worlds of sport, music, entertainment and academia recognise that talent is a combination of innate ability, drive and – dare I say it – charisma.

The best organisations also understand that talent is all about context. It is the match between my skills, potential and aspirations with the needs of the organisation. What makes me a hero in one environment could make me “zero” in another. It is the job of the organisation to get to know its people so well that they can match the individual skills, potential and aspirations with both current and future opportunities.

This is all about nurturing talent. Asking people to work in an area that just doesn’t interest them or encouraging someone to develop a skill because you have a need as an organisation when they lack the fundamental ability, will not deliver success for the organisation. It can also crush an individual’s self-belief and confidence.

Organisations will always look for the most cost-effective way to meet their needs and sometimes that means buying in ready-made talent rather than building it. And yes, sometimes that can also lead to an upward spiral in reward packages when there are talent shortages.

There is a talent shortage of engineers, for example. Science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) employment is growing at three times the pace of non-Stem employment. These skills are considered vital to drive innovation and growth, yet the EU is experiencing a decline in the number of Stem graduates (down 16 per cent between 2009 and 2011).

Armed with this knowledge and the guarantee of almost certain employment when the rest of the graduate jobs market is tough, I would love one of my able, driven children to aspire to be an engineer. They have all the encouragement and opportunity. But instead, I have an aspiring vet and herpetologist and a house full of pets.

Rather than ability or practice – it looks like drive is going to win.

PW: You are right. Drive often wins. But where does it come from? As Mr Syed’s – and many other – examples show, it is another product of nurture.

The prerequisite of achieving a skill through hard work is an expectation of success, which stems from confidence. Confidence is the building block of drive and motivation – without it you would never begin. All of these come from environmental factors, such as social class which, sadly, is a very good predictor of self-confidence, drive and motivation.

It is often cited that men, who are mostly brought up to be competitive and confident, display just this sort of gung-ho confidence when applying for roles for which they might be under-qualified, whereas women, with a tendency to be brought up to be supportive and self-deprecating, will hold back from applying for roles even when more qualified than male applicants.

As our brains are shaped from the moment of birth by everything we encounter – only recently we heard that the shape of ballet dancers’ brains is changed by the need to avoid feeling dizzy – I accept that not everyone can achieve anything they choose in adulthood.

This is not because they begin without the potential, but because from day one, opportunities are closed off – by social class, geography, parental attitudes, social mores, and later by contact with friends, teachers, families, television, books, the internet.

This is where we see confusion between talent and skills. A skill is a specific thing that is learned. Talent is the ability and inclination to learn it – and that comes from confidence and drive – which are also instilled.

The world could therefore be full of talented people if all were given the confidence, drive or need to learn skills. Instead, a large portion are written off as “inferior”, while others who enjoy a privileged early environment see themselves, and are seen, as “special”.

This is why I believe talk of “talent shortages” is misleading. Sectors such as technology and engineering might have skills shortages but this is down to a failure to motivate people to learn the required skills. The potential is there but not enough is done to nurture it.

Paradoxically, there is no specific set of skills for those in business leadership – just hazy, ill-defined responsibilities for items such as strategy, morale, controls, growth and so on, with no clear measures of success.

This allows the myth of “natural talent” to creep in and fill the vacuum. It is also why your work in nurturing leaders and potential leaders is important – because “management” as a skill is hardly practised purposefully at all.

LU: While it is true that a surgeon at the top of their game possesses a level of skill most of us in business can only dream about, it is also true they have acquired that skill by being focused. Their expertise is highly specialised – you could say it is a foot wide and a mile deep.

Chief executives, on the other hand, are given hazier suggestions of where they should spend their time: “be more strategic”; “empower others”; “drive growth”. So where should they focus their purposeful practice?

I would not want my heart operated on by a surgeon who had only ever focused on knees. Likewise, I would not want to be led by a chief executive who had devoted no time to practising great conversations and bringing out the best in others. But that still feels a bit general, unhelpful even – a bit like asking the heart surgeon to “have a good bedside manner”.

So let me return to the question of whether it is opportunity alone that determines talent. If we think success is “all” innate talent, we risk failing to make the most of the ability we have. If we take the view that success is “all” opportunity, we risk perpetuating the equally unreal “Disney message” that says “you can be anything you want to be”.

I believe we all have limits – an innate level of motivation and an innate set of capabilities. With the right opportunity, these limitations are diminished. But they can also be enhanced by situations, or be self-

imposed through erroneous beliefs.

Rather than think this is bad, however, we can think of it as good news. It brings clarity to the role of the leader, the skills they need to practise and the measures of their success.

If we all have a core level of motivation, then the role of the leader is to be the fire under the pot, rather than the lid on the top (as a participant in our talent research so colourfully described it). Leaders find this easier than trying to motivate someone to do something they don’t want to do.

Likewise, if we all have limits, then the job of a leader is to help us understand them and give focus to our ambitions. This will help us succeed and become more confident. It is also more realistic than attempting a “Disney” conversation that aims to help people be “anything you want to be”.

This brings us back to purposeful practice for leaders. Like the surgeon who develops a foot-wide, mile-deep specialism, the leader needs to commit to being able to have great development conversations. From early in their career, they need to practise conversations that tease out people’s ambitions, strengths and limitations and match them to opportunities.

So, rather than hoping for Disney skills in our leaders, perhaps we should think of nurturing “Berocca leaders” – those who help their people to be “you, but on a good day”.

PW: I think we are not as far apart as when we began. If I might claim the final word, I would suggest that the “limits” and “core levels” you cite are real – but do not exist at birth and are steadily imposed.

This means the “Disney” option is also real – but might exist only for a short time: I am sure the Polgar and Williams sisters would have found it almost impossible to reach their level of skills had they started learning them as adults. By then, they would have been made a very different shape by the circumstances of their early lives.

In this sense, the idea that we can “be anything we want to be” is indeed naïve – it is more a case of “we can be anything our environment allows and nurtures us to be”. I see this as imposing an obligation on us to understand why people differ, to realise the possibilities it offers and to avoid labels based on genetic predestination.

It is therefore not a case of finding individuals’ innate talents so that they can enjoy them and be motivated to practise them, it is a case of helping individuals to do things well that they will then like.

The most frequent career advice offered by the successful people we interview each week in this section is to “focus on things you enjoy” – because people tend to be good at what they enjoy.

Conversely, people tend to enjoy what they are good at – ie the things they have spent time, for whatever externally imposed reasons, practising. It will be their life experience that leads them to excel at music, sport, chess, nursing, engineering, developing mobile apps, and so on.

Which brings us back to management. We seem to agree that the set of skills required is vague, broad and difficult to measure. One key skill you identify as necessary is the ability to hold great development conversations and I would not argue with that.

You also advocate that managers begin practising that art from early in their career. Again, I agree – because that is probably the best we can do with a skill that few will have been led to nurture before they are invited to take the boss’s seat.

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