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The Beginner’s Mind

The Beginner’s Mind – talent orientated business culture
Simon Wright
former CEO and President, Virgin Entertainment Group

According to Wright, many companies fail to make best use of their talent because they 

are still ‘pigeonholing’ people on the basis of their age and experience. However, in his 

view, in some instances experience can actually get in the way of solving problems, 
because of the preconceptions it can engender. There is consequently a strong argument 
for approaching challenges with what is described in Zen Buddhism as a ‘beginner’s 
mind’, an openness to possibilities tempered with the application of a quality that Wright 
believes is all too rare in the corporate world – common sense. 
Wright cites instances at Virgin where individuals were ‘parachuted’ into areas where 
they had little or no directly obvious experience. One woman, for example, apparently 
went from store manager to IT director to very successful managing director of a new

acquisition within three years because of her excellent people management skills and 
ability to change and develop as the situation demanded.
According to Wright the reason why so many organisations shy away from this approach 
is a lack of imagination coupled with fear of the consequences. Businesses of all sizes 
need to trust in their instincts and take more risks with people if they are going to manage 

their talent in a truly effective way. And this, in turn, will call for the creation of corporate
cultures that are permissive, enabling, energetic and open.

Wright also called for HR to stand up for itself more, complaining that its voice was often 
not loud enough. He believes that HR needs to intervene more and become much more 
involved in the commercial elements of running the business rather than deferring to other 
professionals in the mix. And, at all costs, it must avoid the tendency now prevalent in the 
USA for HR to focus, not on development and experimentation, but on risk management 
and the preservation of the status quo.

The organisation of the future

It seems clear from the discussion in this think-tank and in other HR Network workshops 
held during 2011 that one of the major sticking points in establishing how to get the 
best out of an organisation’s talent lies in the challenge of defining what ‘talent’ actually 
means. And in particular whether the term should apply to all those employed within 
the business or a smaller group of ‘high potentials’. Even within the second definition 
there is debate about what ‘high potential’ should embrace. Should it just cover obvious, 
high profile contributors or should it also take into account the ‘quiet ones’, the George 
Harrisons of the corporate world who may have a massive impact on performance but 
in a humble, unassuming and even covert way?
What was also clear was the difficulty of balancing the desire to bring ‘mavericks’ into 
an organisation to catalyse and enable change with the needs of the many - the safe, 
dependable individuals who will ensure that the organisation can continue to deliver 
‘business as usual’ on an ongoing basis.
There was however consensus around a number of key ways to get the best return on 
investment from talent in all its forms:
1. Transparency of vision and strategy
2. Transparency around how individuals could contribute to and impact on vision and 
3. The provision of engaged and engaging leadership
4. Accountability
5. Appropriate and effective rewards systems tailored not just to the whole but to the 
needs and goals of individuals

Performance – should it be an individual and corporate

Can obsession ever be a positive attribute? Although it initially may seem an unhealthy 
concept, obsession does get things done, particularly when conditions are unfavourable 
or there are significant obstacles to be overcome. Obsession injects energy and shows 
the world what’s important to us. However participants generally seemed to feel much 
more comfortable with the concept of passion and, specifically to passion about 
performance leading to energy, continuous improvement, enhanced and positive results.

Modern businesses appear obsessed with getting better and better results. But is this
the wrong obsession...or passion? Instead of focusing only on revenue, sales, security,
delivery and customer service, the general consensus is that business should be equally
passionate about people, talent and performance: a disproportionate focus on ‘hard’
results means that learning is compromised.
Organisations need to find a way of creating the same unrelenting passion for
performance as they have for numbers. And business leaders supported by their HR
and L&D experts could make great headway towards this if they work together in a true

HR’s future in business value creation
If there is one certainty about the future of HR it is that it will be subject to more and
more demanding expectations and will need to deliver more, at a faster pace and more
efficiently. However, after establishing that, accurate forecasting of what is to come
proves much more daunting.
While technology has, in some ways proved HR’s foe by accelerating the pace of
change throughout the business world, it may now begin to become its friend, enabling
an employer/employee interface which is more personal and tailored to individual
experience. If this is to work effectively though, line management will need to accept
that talent management is not something that can be wholly delegated , but must be
owned by those in the front line of the business. And if that can be achieved HR in its
present form may cease to exist and finally merge with the commercial management of
the organisation where many believe it should have sat all along.
Talent economics – building an investment model
A ‘straw poll’ of participants in this group highlighted two common worries amongst
senior HR professionals:
1. The continuing negative effects of a tactical, responsive approach to talent
management in general and talent sourcing in particular
2. A focus on leaders or high potentials at the expense of the bulk of an organisation’s
In seeking to deal with these issues it was clear that HR needed to engage CEO’s
more effectively, quantifying investment and likely results and using ‘business speak’
rather than the traditional language of the function to communicate value. One
participant, a manufacturing company, explained how adopting a different approach to
communicating with the business allowed them to put talent management in a context
board members could easily grasp, likening talent to the commodities the company
dealt with to create and sell its products. However each organisation must be clear as
to what talent actually is and then communicate this through a simple and consistent

The goal should be to educate leaders to see themselves as custodians of talent
with the ultimate responsibility for its best management at all stages of the attraction,
acquisition, development and retention process. HR‘s role should consequently be
one of catalyst, supporting, coaching and enabling rather than actually delivery. Line
management should be provided with the tools to accomplish this and incentivised
to use them. Another participant showed how they achieved this by linking 50% of
individual bonus payments to employee satisfaction and engagement research.


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