When Talent Doesn’t Matter: Business Advice from a Pool-player

My long-time business partner, Dr. Erich Longie, is a very experienced pool player. Today, we were discussing a business decision where someone had to choose between two potential employees. One was exceptionally talented but not particularly ethical – nothing terrible, mind you, like stealing out of the cash register, or sexually harassing the interns – but just not great. You know the type – padding expense accounts, always rounding up on invoices so that an hour and fifteen minutes became two hours. This employee, let’s call him Bob1, also had the passive type of lack of ethics. That is, not only did he DO things, but there were also the things he DIDN’T do, like never suggesting anything unless he was being paid specifically to come up with new ideas, never working five minutes over what was in the contract. Bob1 was smart. I would say, too smart for his own good. For example, on the point of never making any suggestions, I once overheard him advise a younger person,

“Why would you suggest anything to a client that was not in your contract? I get paid for my brains, to come up with new concepts. I’m not giving anything up for free. That’s just bad business.”

Bob1 is really smart, with a degree from a top school and a talented developer, not just intelligent but able to come up with new ways of solving problems and even new opportunities.

Then there was the second person, let’s call him Bob2. He is no dummy but an objective observer would have to conclude that he isn’t as good at the work as Bob1. The work Bob2 does is above-average to very, very good, whereas Bob1 is outstanding. On the other hand, Bob2 is outstanding in the ethics field. He’s the kind of guy you could leave your wallet on the desk and yell from the next room,

“I don’t know how much is in there, but just take what I owe you and leave the rest.”

… and you’d just know that Bob2 wouldn’t take any more than you owed him right down to the penny. He is always coming up with new ideas, some of which aren’t the best, but some are really good. He’s the person who starts when he says he’ll start a project and never misses a deadline.


pool cue and cue ball

Erich said that making the choice between the two is just a matter of how much honesty and ethics matter. He gave this analogy:

There was a pool player I knew who was a great shot. He also drank too much. If we were doing a short tournament, say one day or one evening, we might pick him because he was a great shot and he would come through for us. BUT … if it was a two-day tournament, we wouldn’t want him on our team because he let us down too many times. Maybe he would show up on the second day and play great, or maybe he would be too drunk. If it was a situation where we needed to rely on somebody, we would pick someone else.


If I was doing a short-term project where I needed a top guy, I’d pick Bob1. If I was looking for someone to take on as a full-time employee, I’d pick Bob2. The question is, “How much do his lack of ethics off-set how talented he is?” I think that’s the key here. For a short period, I can see how he’d be worth it. In the long run, you don’t want to always have to be looking over your shoulder, watching out to make sure he is doing his job, not cutting corners, not holding back on the work because he resents that you aren’t paying him enough, appreciating his great talent enough.

While I tended to think that employers would go for one or the other, choosing either talent or reliability, Erich’s point was a very insightful one. Sometimes being the smartest, most talented person in the room matters. And sometimes other things matter more.


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