Stay ahead by spotting talent early

THE ability to identify talented people is one of the more under-appreciated skills in business. I realised exactly how under-appreciated on a recent flight while talking with the gentleman next to me.

After telling me about his career in aviation insurance, the man asked what I do.

''We represent athletes.'' ''Oh yeah,'' he said. ''Who?'' I mentioned a couple of superstars in golf and tennis. Then he surprised me.

''You know who you should represent?'' he said.

I was all ears.

''Shaquille O'Neal,'' he whispered.

O'Neal (whom we do not represent) was last year's number one draft choice in the National Basketball Association. He had a US$40 million contract to play centre for the Orlando Magic. His television commercials for his own line of Reebok shoes were ubiquitous. Plus, he was as great as expected.

Yes, I thought, it would be nice to represent basketball's newest marquee attraction.

It occurred to me, though, that my fellow passenger had no idea what business I was in. I think he actually believed he was cluing me in on a secret - when in fact every American who reads the sports pages already knows O'Neal's value. It is no secret. The essence of a client management business like ours is not spotting talent - it is spotting talent before anyone else does.

We have to find the sports superstar when he is 14 years old, not when he is 22.

Fortunately, over the years, we have been very good at spotting talent early in sports such as tennis, golf, and figure skating. In professional team sports like football and basketball, which are fed by college athletes and have strict rules about recruiting players, this is less of an advantage. We may know a freshman ballplayer is a great prospect, but we cannot even think about talking to him until his amateur playing days are over.

We follow some basic principles any entrepreneur in any business can apply to finding and hiring talented people.

My friend, Sol Kerzner, the South African resort developer, still chides me about the time I invited him to be my guest at Wimbledon. Instead of taking him to our seats to watch the ladies' semi-final match, I dragged him to one of the side courts where a promising junior was playing.

The side courts of Wimbledon are where you find the future superstars - not on Centre Court, where the semi-finalists tend to be well-established players.

When everybody is facing one way, the real opportunities can usually be found by looking the other way.

Of course, even when you are scouting the side courts, you have to know what to look for - and you cannot be blinded by the score.

Some years ago I was watching a junior tennis match at the French Open between a young German and an Australian named Mark Kratzmann, who was our client. I counted 11 people in the stands. One of them was Ion Tiriac, a former player from Romania.

Kratzmann won the match, and I left the court feeling pleased our client had come out on top. The next day, another one of our clients, Kent Carlsson, beat Kratzmann in the Junior Finals. With two clients as finalists I was even more pleased with our company's performance.

What I did not realise then was that Tiriac had seen something special in the young German: Boris Becker. Was it his power, his speed, his derring-do? Who knows? But Tiriac eventually became Becker's manager while the player developed into a three-time Wimbledon champion and a German national hero.

A major opportunity sailed over my head because I was smugly admiring our clients' performance. While I was focused on the scoreboard, Tiriac was focusing on Becker. I should have been paying attention to both sides of the net.

Some people have an inferiority complex when they search for talent. They do not have a lofty opinion of their organisation or their own ability, and that translates into the quality of the customers, clients, and employees they pursue. If they are running a less-than-elite law firm, they do not recruit graduates from the elite law schools.

They leave the top talents to the elite firms. They do not think they have the money, the clients, or the prestige to attract the best people. So they go to the second-tier schools - where the graduates are skilled but may not be as demanding about salary and interesting cases. The only problem with this, of course, is that it consigns the firm to perpetual second-rate status.

Fortunately, we never had a chance to develop an inferiority complex, because from day one with Palmer, Player, and Nicklaus, we were handling the top talents in golf. They not only taught us the advantages of dealing with superstars, they forced us to raise our sights in every other part of our business.

When it comes to spotting and recruiting talent, there is nothing wrong with aiming for the top. The problems begin when you aim too low. To identify great talent, you have to believe you deserve to work with great talent.

Some people have an almost mystical ability to spot talent. Most people do not. A wise manager knows when he falls into the latter group and defers to those who fall into the former.

Nick Bollettieri, who runs our Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academies and trained Andre Agassi, Jim Courier, and Monica Seles among others, is a genius at spotting tennis talent at an early age. I have no idea how he does it.

But I would be a fool not to pay attention when he tells me to keep an eye on a promising youngster.

Several years ago, I sat with Cino Marchese, who runs our Italian operations and has a keen eye for tennis talent, to watch Goran Ivanisevic play a junior match in Paris. To me, Ivanisevic was just another tall, skinny player with an unimpressive serve. But Marchese insisted he was going to be a world-beater - and soon. I did not see the potential that would one day make Ivanisevic a Wimbledon finalist, but I made a mental note we should be managing this player, which we did for years.

That is the real secret to identifying talent. If you do not have the ability to spot talent yourself, listen to people who do - and act on their advice.