Ask most leaders to describe their jobs and they'll talk about leading the people they have. Most of the time they focus on day-to-day leadership: developing people, building team cohesion, creating an innovative culture, driving performance, focusing on results -- all the things leaders rightly value.
But the best leaders are also what I call great Identifiers: They spend a significant amount of their time identifying talent. They spend a significant amount of their time identifying people with potential -- with the raw skills, temperament, personality, and drive to someday be exceptional.
Identifiers don't wait until they have an opening. They start looking now. And because they have a head start, they spot talent -- and add that talent to their teams -- long before others even think about looking.
I like to think I'm a good Identifier. (Not great, but good.) The proof is in the talent prediction pudding, though, so let's find out. Here's one prediction:
Noah Gragson will be a star in NASCAR.
Granted I'm not going out on a huge limb. Noah drives in the Truck series for Kyle Busch Motorsports, the team that won the 2015 and 2017 Camping World Truck Series championships. Kyle has an incredible eye for talent; if he puts you in one of his cars, that means something.
Noah has also driven three races in the XFINITY series for Joe Gibbs Racing, finishing second at Richmond, 4th at Talladega, and 7th at Dover. The day before he was running 2nd with two laps to go in the Truck race before crashing while battling for the lead. (More on that in a moment.)
And he's been chosen to be part of the Toyota Racing Development Driver Development program, arguably the best driver development program in terms of resources, support, etc. in stock car racing.
But still: Plenty of drivers get opportunities. Plenty of drivers take part in formal development programs. Many finish well in select races.
So why does this nineteen year-old stand out? I chatted with Noah in the Media Center at Richmond Raceway a few weeks ago and noticed a couple of things. (Think I'm crazy for making a prediction based on a casual twenty-minute conversation? Remember how quickly you make -- how quickly you have to make -- judgments about potential employees during job interviews.)
One, Noah compares himself not to how far he's come... but how far he still wants to go. He finished second in his XFINITY series debut, an amazing achievement for his first race at that level. Most people would have been thrilled with that kind of result -- yet Noah was visibly disappointed immediately after the race.
Within a few minutes, though, he rallied and was both professional and natural during his post-race interview.
That's a key skill for race drivers; as IndyCar driver Ryan Hunter-Reay says, "In racing, you need to have all the skills on the track -- talent, situational awareness, speed, willingness to take risks -- plus you also have to be a person and a brand that is appealing and sellable, one that corporations want to partner with."
Noah's attitude is a key predictor of success. To most successful people, what you've already accomplished is quickly internalized. While to others your successes might seem amazing and praise-worthy, to you, they're unremarkable and insufficient.
Not feeling like you've made it can be emotionally draining, but that attitude is also what makes successful people become even more successful.
(If that's you, be glad you'll probably never feel like you've made it, especially if that feeling drives you to put in the time and effort to turn "good enough" into great... and then get up and do it again the next day. Because success isn't a destination; success is a journey.)
Two, it seems clear that Noah has a growth mindset. According to research on achievement and success by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, people tend to embrace one of two mental approaches to talent:
- Fixed mindset: The belief that intelligence, ability, and skill are inborn and relatively fixed -- we "have" what we were born with. People with a fixed mindset typically say things like "I'm just not that smart" or "Math is not my thing."
- Growth mindset: The belief that intelligence, ability, and skill can be developed through effort -- we are what we work to become. People with a growth mindset typically say things like "With a little more time, I'll get it" or "That's OK. I'll give it another try."
Successful people don't expect to be perfect... but they do think they can always be better. They see the past, no matter how painful, as training. They view mistakes as opportunities to learn. They think about what went wrong in terms of how they will make sure that, next time, they know how to make sure things go right.
And one last thing: Noah has personality -- and he's not afraid to show it. Racing is a somewhat unique sport in that fan loyalty, and the accompanying sponsorship dollars, are often based not on simply on results but also on personality and other less tangible qualities. (See: Earnhardt, Dale Jr.)
Authenticity matters, and with the media and fans, Noah is articulate and relatively polished... but not too polished.
And that's a good thing.
So there you have it. If I was a team owner hoping to find the next star, rather than hire an established star, I'd snag Noah.
It may take a few years, but let's see if I'm right.
And while we're waiting, get to work identifying the next talent for your business -- because a great leader is, first and foremost, a great Identifier.