Talent: “The artistic side is always looking for new acts. The business side wants to make sure they aren’t irreplaceable.”

The rules of science dictate that a mirror shows exactly what is in front of it but that doesn’t necessary mean all observers will describe the reflection consistently. We see what we want to see and it was interesting to notice various interpretations of today’s Lefsetz Letter on Grantland. Specifically, what to do with the .01% most talented people (coddle them, don’t coddle them; put them in companies, don’t put them in companies; teams matter more in my industry).

Lefsetz – who comes from record industry and world of media – believes one-of-a-kind, singular talent isn’t just important, it’s the only thing that matters.

“Talent is never going to be manageable. If you want the trains to run on time, go work for the railroad. Talent is as insecure as it is boastful. You embrace talent, you give it wings. This is how Jimmy Iovine succeeded at Interscope, it’s how Mo Ostin and Joe Smith succeeded at Warner, you want to be a magnet for talent, not an adversary. Only cut bait if you’re losing money and you see no way to make it back in the future. As for difficult personalities, it goes with the territory. And when it comes to art, talent is sui generis. There’s only one Paul McCartney and one Max Martin. You can hire someone controllable, you just won’t get the results.”

That’s the star system at work – the ability to take someone who is special and provide a talented support team to help but also to coddle when necessary, because you are dependent on that person.

There are other creative endeavors though which have taken a different approach, specifically believing they can’t build a business around unique talent. Namely, Cirque du Soleil. One of my favorite People Ops articles covered their hiring process (WSJ 2007). They scout the world to hire amazing talent, the type of wonderful performers you would spend hundreds of dollars on a ticket to see. But they can’t hire anyone who isn’t replaceable because they’re building entire shows around these performers. Shows which need to endure and tour.

“But a problem arises when talent is truly unique and either difficult or impossible to replace. If, for example, one enters the words “giant” and “opera” into the database, only one name pops up: Victorino Antonio Lujan, a 39-year-old Argentinian who stands just shy of seven feet and weighs about 400 pounds.”

And in a sentence which would probably make Lefsetz jump out of his seat and shout:

“Working with such singular talent forces Cirque to walk a tightrope. The artistic side is always looking for new acts. The business side wants to make sure they aren’t irreplaceable.”