Every January, the Australian summer of tennis goes into full swing.
And – with both excitement and acknowledging the risk of straining the link between sport and business, nearly every year, we write about some connectivity or pattern observed through the Australian Open (AO) and work.
This year we are taking a lesson from tennis about Talent.
You can love tennis, tolerate it, or even dislike it – but the lessons we take will be equally apt in your workplace – whatever your work is.
So, what really prompted this article?
The prompt for this was 2 simple things.
First, came the lead-up tennis that happens before the AO. Tournaments for women, men, and pairings of women, men and mixed pairs played all over the Australia and New Zealand.
The second came the decisions made about who is given the opportunity to play in the AO – which is the highest profile tennis tournament in the Southern Hemisphere. This is not a critique of who plays, but more an exploration of it.
And at the simplest level, there are a few key components that make up who gets a start at the AO.
3 key talent components observed in the Australian Open
Rankings are as they sound, your positioning (in the world) in the sport of tennis. You can have a ranking in women’s or men’s tennis (as an individual player), or in doubles (where you play with a partner).
The rankings dictate whether you automatically get a place in the draw (long list of who plays who in a knockout style) which starts with singles (individual players) lists of 128 men, and 128 women, and then 64 teams of two across women’s doubles, men’s doubles, and mixed doubles.
As you can see from the simple drawing below, the first set of matches means 50% of the field is culled, and this continues until each draw culminates with a final match to determine a winner and finalist.
But the 128-person draw doesn’t just take the top 128 players in the world i.e. use rankings in isolation.
Working backwards, it takes about 104 players in the singles draws on ranking (but of course, players could hold a ranking and be injured and not able to play so there’s a little bit of movement within this). There is also a more complicated concept of ‘protected ranking’ to give injured players a chance to rekindle their seemingly ‘rightful’ position.
There are then a couple of unique additional concepts that come through.
This is where things get even more interesting. Each year the AO gives out 8 wildcards to the men’s draw and 8 wildcards to the women’s draw, based on the decision of a selection panel. Like any process or practice, there are the written rules, and there are the cultural ones (the way things are done around here).
In the world of wildcards (an automatic position in the AO granted to you by Tennis Australia), a few factors are listed that go into the selection panel’s decision-making process:
- The player’s ranking is not high enough to make the main draw
- Wildcard play-offs across the region
- Reciprocal agreements with other Tennis Federations
In the men’s draw this year of 8 wildcards:
5 Australians, 1 American, 1 French and 1 Chinese player.
In the women’s draw this year of 8 wildcards:
4 Australians, 1 American, Danish 1, French 1, Japan 1
Interestingly, the currently top ranked female player in Australia – Ariana Rodionova was not given a wildcard (given her ranking is just outside the top 104) to the AO, and played qualifying but didn’t progress to the end. It caused some debate, and we have our own views, but it’s demonstrative of the lack of guarantees in the whole process.
Lastly comes qualifying.
This is a 3-round knockout tournament for women and men, where 128 players start in each. If you win your 3 matches, which just 16 players in each draw will do, then you win a spot in the main AO.
This can be an important experience for young players, or a tough path for experienced ones who currently has a lower ranking (versus their highest level). And the experience can also land the prize money to set up the entire season and keep them going towards their dream for another year. I liken this to a farmer – there’s a lot of discipline in planning the crops years in advance (getting the ground ready) and planting crops (or training in tennis), but a lot needs to go right around you beyond that – the weather, the available labour, and your own wellbeing and physicality exactly when its needed.
So, spare a thought, and hold an incredible level of respect for players with a ‘Q’ against their name. Maybe it’s the Aussie love of an underdog, but these players have done it the hard way.
They’re likely young, with a big part of their life already dedicated to the pursuit of excellence on the up and up; or more experienced and grinding with everything they have to play with the best in the world. Maybe they are injured and returning, have had a patch of tough form, or are giving the fullest of their abilities and this is where they rank.
So, if you see a ‘Q’ against a name on your TV screen, know that even in the 1st round of the AO, they’ve already played and won 3 matches just for the opportunity to face a very highly ranked opponent in the main tournament.
Do these 3 talent components (and the conditions around them) exist in workplaces?
Short answer is a yes!
At the heart of the tennis approach are two critical factors – demonstrated performance and potential.
The longer answer is – yes, but you need to understand the nuances.
Rankings exist in workplaces but aside from rumoured practice of some corporates in ranking top to bottom, and culling, we most commonly consider people’s performance vs. true rankings. We look individually first – to recognise personal contribution, support growth and development, and reward the best; and collectively – as teams, functions and businesses and impact on each other (can they play together?)– with similar intent.
The jury is out on the right way to do that – but – the simplest answer to designing a good performance process is to set clear goals for people with clear measurement, and then make transparent assessment of achievement against that. You do that ‘looking back’ at a period of time.
But as humans, we are definitely growth and momentum players, so we cannot only dwell on feedback for the past. We need something to grasp and move forward towards as well. This means the best assessment, and the best development, must also have a growth orientation where a person can develop.
Qualifying. This means something similar in workplaces – where qualifying is ultimately about checking a person for readiness – to do a job, to play well enough for the opportunity.
It is absolutely a talent identification tactic, and most commonly we don’t check their performance against other players. We are likely to do pre-assessments of them with mixed levels of validity and success.
As organisational psychologists will tell you – a ‘work sample test’ (get the person to show they can do the thing you want them to) is still the most reliable indicator of future performance. So, tennis qualifying has that right.
Wildcards. As seen in the tennis examples, there are some guidelines for them, and some opacity. This is exactly how talent seemingly works in most organisations. Good intent, good frameworks, plus some subjectivity.
For those acknowledged as ‘top talent’ – the highly ranked players – a lot of data has been collected on performance and potential. They’re ‘ranked’.
Away from that group, more subjectivity comes in. In a solo (or small team) sport, highly ranked players matter. In a workplace, team dynamics, and the talent mix, matter differently, so sometimes you can make a different decision – to play a wildcard – aligned into the rest of the team they’ll be working with. They can give opportunities to play the big roles, before a person 100% ready, because the team can support and coach them.
In all of this, having a defined and used process for identifying and supporting talent at various organisational, performance and potential levels is key.
It not only means you can make the best possible decisions on the right people in the right roles, but equally that individuals and teams can dream, can step up, can know the rules and what’s possible, and play their possible best game.
From our work, we know Talent is one of THE most critical parts of every organisations, and that is one of our specialities. We have a very simple approach to that – well worth a read as we kickstart 2024.