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Divergent Talent: recognizing the value of those that aren't like the others

This post has a backstory, and needs a little bit of setup so bear with me. :-)

I recently found out that an acquaintance was leaving the company. Let's call him PersonA. I met PersonA just twice, saw a couple of emails from him to some common email lists and had exactly one long conversation with him about product strategy. PersonA was young and I suspect this was his first job though he was here for a couple of years when we had this chatI saw his goodbye email and I could tell there was some angst there - he seemed to leave because he thought he didn't quite fit. I remember thinking, when I had my one long conversation with him, that he was exactly like a good friend of mine - let's call this person PersonB.

PersonB I know well from before both of us joined this company. PersonB didn't quite fit the template of a Google PM, but did well here for a while and enjoyed himself... until a change of managers and circumstances meant that he didn't. He decided to leave quite few years ago.

PersonA reminded me of PersonB so strongly for a few reasons. They were both outspoken, sharp and - this is the word that stuck in my head - divergent. They didn't quite do the things or say the things that you would expect from a Google product manager. Their nature and skillsets meant they did the job very differently, and most importantly, in spite of trying hard to conform they were simply unable to fit the norms of what was expected of a Google PM. Their DNA was different and eventually they had to leave because it wasn't compatible with that of the host they were in.

We as a company lost out. These were both talented and passionate individuals that really wanted to work and succeed here. I think if they had been shepherded differently and managed differently their contributions and careers here could have been a lot more significant.

Dealing with divergent talent is hard in a large company. Org design and performance management practices can help, but systems don't naturally work well with divergent talent. Systems and processes reward what's predictable and easily measurable. It needs understanding, confident and compassionate managers to shepherd these people through, and so it needs a system to train people to be such managers.


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