Hell hath no fury like talent spurned

2005

In 1683 (stay with me!), a young man by the name of Eugene approached the King of France, a man thought to be his Father, to request a commission to become a soldier. The co-called Sun King, fearful of anyone with half a claim to the throne, refused.

Perhaps he thought, by virtue of his word being law, that Eugene would obey his command to join the clergy. The King cannot have imagined that this young supplicant would immediately take his talent, life, and energy into the service of the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I. In any case, in the King's infallible judgment, Eugene was far too ugly to be a military leader of any value.

Did the loss of Eugene really matter? Eugene was unproven while King Louis XIV was thought by many to be invincible, undefeated on land for two decades, with half a million men in his army.

Eugene's ambition, from the perspective of the monarch, was unimportant, but as a direct result of Louis making it impossible for Eugene to make his name fighting for the French, he was forced to fight in the service of strangers and became a willing combatant against his former king. In short, Eugene wanted to prove himself by defeating the man who had rejected him and his talent.

It was a decision that was to prove expensive for the Sun King. Eugene's military brilliance played a vital role in defeating the French in Bavaria and Belgium, disasters that led to the Peace of Utrecht in 1713 and limited the European expansion of the empire of Louis.

Ironically, Louis had become successful precisely because he was prepared to promote people based on their talent rather than on their blood-line. In the first twenty years of his reign he had empowered talented people to reorganise his kingdom, encourage culture and reform the army. It was only when his fear and arrogance over-rode his judgment that his gift for nurturing talent was neutralised - something that anyone that wishes to lead or is responsible for advising leadership should remember.

Usually these lessons are only learned after the damage has been done, but there is no reason that you cannot prove to be an exception.

Larry Ellison, the founder of Oracle and on a good day the 4th richest man on earth, seemed to have developed similar blind spots to the needs of ambitious talent. After working closely together with Tom Siebel for six years he rejected (according to Siebel) his lieutenant's ideas for sales force automation software. As Fast Company once put it:

"There's something poetic about a rivalry between two people who were once teacher and student. Siebel's eight-year-old company is now the clear leader in SFA and customer relationship management software, with $1.8 billion in sales last year. That's roughly one-fifth the size of 24-year-old Oracle, which is the underdog here but vows to overtake Siebel in a few years. They're fierce competitors, who have a lot in common. Both are control freaks full of hubris who seem to revel in openly insulting each other."

"I hate Tom", was one comment from the charming Mr. Ellison who has recently offered $5.85 billion for the upstarts company in what has been described as a victory for Oracle.

But it is worth considering what would have happened if Siebel's ideas had been adopted and nurtured by Poppa Larry in the first place. He wouldn't have had to play second fiddle for the past decade and he would have been able to supercharge the Siebel idea with the existing customer base, organisation, and cash. Both men are rich both could have been more successful together than apart.

It was a similar story in 1998 when the owners of Palm (the PDA people) failed to allow its founders Jeff Hawkins and Donna Dubinsky creative freedom to expand the capabilities of their then-famous Palm computer.

Did Hawkins and Dubinsky stick around to follow the orders of their supposed masters? Nope. The spurned founders left to found a new rival, Handspring, which competing with "withering personal computer rivalry" over the next five years until Palm 'bought them back' in a deal that, in effect, gave the estranged talent's backers control over 30 per cent of the company.

Unfortunately this proved to be too late to reverse the decline of Palm as an operating system. In 1998 - before the acrimonious divorce - Palm had 80 per cent of the PDA market and was considered by many to have the potential to beat Microsoft. But by the time they kissed, made-up, they had less than 50 per cent of the market and were losing money.

The result is that Palm has now decided to use Microsoft's PDA software on its most popular product - created by Hawkins - the Treo Smartphone, which has shipped more than a quarter of a million units in the US alone.

The Sun King, Larry Ellison, and Palm's owners 3Com all made the same mistake of assuming that their servants were interchangeably valuable

The Sun King, Larry Ellison, and Palm's owners 3Com all made the same mistake of assuming that their servants were interchangeably valuable and that even the most gifted among them would remain subservient. This shared misjudgement cost Louis his European expansion, Oracle applications growth for a decade, and 3Com it's hard-won edge over Microsoft.

So what can we learn? In answering the question let me first describe a completely different way of working with talent demonstrated by Thomas Edison.

"Share & Grow" was Edison's way of recognising that success is a team sport and is better played as one. In "How Breakthroughs Happen", Andrew Hargadon described the process:

"Edison built a community that was deeply committed to the innovation process. Edison worked most closely with Charles Batchelor, an Englishman whose training as both a mechanic and a draughtsman complemented (and grounded) Edison's more flighty visions. The relationship between them was demonstrated by the agreement to split profits 50-50 for all inventions and to receive stock in all resulting companies."

The strength of Edison was, first, that he recognized the collaborative nature of innovation, second that he was willing to share wealth and third, that he was happy to give freedom to collaborators so that they could continue to be fulfilled working with him rather than against him.

In every successful venture there is a core team inside and outside the company that make it work – failure to nurture that team's effectiveness and loyalty will quickly jeopardize anything that has been achieved.

At Apple, Steve Jobs has a small team, headed up by affable Brit Jonathon Ives, who runs its industrial-design department. This group has been responsible for the 'i-revolution' in Apple's fortunes. The iMac, the iPod and now the iPod Nano, the latter put together by that same secretive team in just nine months.

One report described Ive as: "about as obsessive-compulsive as you can be without being hospitalised, and his wild enthusiasm for detail is what gives iPods the aura of sleek, otherworldly perfection that has helped make them the quintessential 21st century accessory."

So ask yourself: What would happen to Apple if Ives left? How good would Sony become if they had the iPod man on board? Would Edison have been remembered as a genius if he had tried to grab all the cash and alienated Batchelor? How are you looking after your talent? Can your people achieve more with you than against you? Are you sure?

The wisest organisations start from the premise that each employee is, and can become, many times more valuable than they were when they were first hired. And even the least intelligent needs to understand the law of variability enough to know that dissidents are necessary to innovation.

In other words, senior management, however able, cannot succeed without the talent of many others outside the inner circle who deserve - and will seek - both respect and a fair share of the fruits of their labours.

more articles

About The Author

Max McKeown
Max McKeown

Max McKeown works as a strategic adviser for four of the five most admired companies in the world. He is a well-known speaker on subjects including innovation and competitive advantage. His latest book, #NOW: The Surprising Truth About the Power of Now, was published in July 2016.

Older Comments

Great article. Some of our best people have come to us from other companies when they have been badly treated. I hope it continues!

Jack Thompson NYC

Nicely argued and a beautiful use of the medium -- so compelling in fact that I barely noticed I was reading text on a screen. Please write more.

Gregory Yates San Francisco

Very cool, worthwhile reading.

Michael Bayler

Excellent article. The headline says it all.

Dr K.Carter UK