Seeing the Tree in the Seed

Seeing a tree in the seed itself

By Roopen Roy Sep 10 2013

Tags: Op-ed


CLOSER LOOK: A buyer holds a diamond with tweezers as he uses an eyeglass to examine the gem at the Israel World Diamond Centre in Ramat Gan, Israel, on August 26

While sipping coffee in Jerusalem, an Israeli friend of mine told me some insightful facts about the global diamond industry. Majority of the rough stones that constitute gem-grade diamonds come from the African continent. India is a major player in cutting, polishing and trading of the gem. But the business of cut and polished diamonds is concentrated in London, Antwerp, Amsterdam and New York. The one country that does not produce a single stone yet silently dominates the diamond industry, is Israel.

The Israeli diamond industry contributes approximately $800 million annually to the country’s balance of payments. This number does not include the profits of the global diamond companies that find their way into the country. So what is the unique skill that Israelis bring to the table? First, they have intricate connections in a network that manages the supply chain. Secondly, they have experts who can examine a piece of rough diamond and predict the worth of its finished form. These experts decide how the stone will be cut and polished. The value of a cut and polished diamond is driven by four Cs: carat, clarity, colour and cut. The first three Cs are determined by the properties of the rough stone found in nature. The last C is influenced by the touch of the human hand. Many experts who can look at a piece of rough diamond and predict fairly accurately its high street price in a polished form have a connection with Israel. It is a rare skill, which is highly prized and rewarded.

In other industries as well, the uncanny ability to select and value is a rare and sought after skill. Take the example of an expert tea taster, who grades and values teas for auction and assists in combining various teas. The objective is to create a unique blend that produces a consistent taste, flavour and aroma that has market demand. Branded, packaged tea is typically the handiwork of an expert blender.

Scotch whisky producers take enormous pride in their master blenders. Colin Scott of Chivas sums up the task of a master blender with a touch of flourish, “The art of the Master Blender in understanding the many different flavours in scotch whisky is like the work of a composer; not only do you need to completely understand the musical characteristics of every instrument, but you must also understand how to combine them to build an unforgettable, spellbinding symphony.” You play with taste, aroma, flavour, colour and that indefinable word in whisky taxonomy: “character.”

The French have elevated wine tasting to an almost religious ritual. They describe it ‘as a sensory examination and evaluation of wine’. There are professional sommeliers who make a living out of tasting and evaluating wines. Is this art valuable for the knowledge and service industry? I would argue it is. Whether a budding Bollywood actor, a rising cricketer, a private equity player with potential, a blossoming consultant or a promising software designer, it is very important to be able to see the sparkle of an outwardly rough stone early in the day.

In building a team or a great institution, selection of gem-like human resources is critical. The development of human talent is a much more complex task than cutting a stone or ending whiskies. People mature with experience and respond very differently to diverse leadership styles. They need coaching and mentoring with individual care and attention. The emotional connect is crucial. Human beings have the ability to understand if they are being valued or not.

Organisations which have a single-minded objective of creating shareholder value often evaluate its human assets only on financial metrics. Not surprisingly, they usually attract ‘mercenaries’. In such organisations, money is the principal tool of talent retention. Other organisations also create shareholder value, but they have a broader appeal and a greater purpose or mission. Some organisations have managers who simply drive operational excellence, while others have visionary and inspirational leaders who end up drawing the best talent.

Great leaders are distinguished by their ability to see the tree in the seed. They use all their ability and power to select the right strain of seeds. They also devote their time to see the seeds germinate and blossom into beautiful trees.

The most common mistake is to reject a promising talent just because he or she does not exactly conform to a job specification. Job specifications should merely provide some guidance to the recruiters. Recruiters should never be prisoners of the specifications sheet. Recruiters often reject candidates because they are ‘over-sized’ or ‘under-sized’. Sometimes the ‘sizing’ itself is flawed or some specifications are not relevant to the skills required.

In an IT services company, we once found that candidates with brilliant academic records were being routinely rejected in interviews. When we did a deep dive, we found that a HR recruiter was setting quiz questions that created a bias against those who were poor in general knowledge. Why would a software designer need to know the difference between a Beaujolais and a Chianti, the name of the Olympic gold medallist in archery and whether King Lear had a beard? By designing these irrelevant filters, the company was denying itself the services of a pool of brilliant programmers.

It is critical to have leaders lead from the front in recruitments. They are most likely to have the insight and experience to see the tree in the seed. Michelangelo had famously said, “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it. I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”