It took 200 years to go from Charles Darwin’s first suspicions that human characteristics could be inherited, to where researchers have mapped almost the entire 3.2 billion base pairs in the human genome. But these days, the advances and breakthroughs in DNA and its applications are coming thick and fast.

It’s definitely a good time to see how the science of DNA might be applied to professional development, talent and potential. We sat down with Loek Worm of BrainCompass, to find out more.

Firstly, what are the misconceptions about DNA you hear most often?

In the Netherlands, there is a saying: ‘H/she who is born for a dime, will never amount to a quarter.’ Meaning, you are born with a certain potential and will never rise above that. To that, I say, ‘he who is born for a dime and became a quarter may always have been a quarter, we just didn’t see it.’

The question is: ‘are there people that are not able to do certain things’, and ‘is there something you can’t do and will never be able to learn?’

To be honest, yes, sometimes there are things you’ll never be able to do very well.

So, what’s the role of DNA in all of this? At BrainCompass, we believe we are not a product of our DNA. We are what we eventually choose to do with that DNA.

It is a story of nature and nurture, where DNA is only a small part of who we are and what we are able to become. Your biological identity is not only your DNA but everything your parents have given you in your upbringing. It is a story of nature and nurture – put together.

What could empowering people through their DNA look like?

For example, people with autism used to fall outside of the workforce, but are now part of the strategic HR goals of SAP, the global enterprise software firm. SAP said, ‘we are going to hire people with autism and let them do something they are very good at, namely identifying errors in code’. They may not be the best consultants to be at the table with our clients, but because we now know how to deal with people with autism, we are able to create an environment where they function well. They now have well-paid jobs and do things that give them energy.

This is a great example of knowing where talent comes from and how to utilise it. I believe in empowering people, making them get the best out of themselves.

How can DNA determine if someone’s fit for a job?

I would like to answer with another example.

At ING Bank, they work with what they call ‘tribes’, to encourage people to work together more closely, without managers.

The hormone oxytocin - the most important hormone that ensures a bond between mother and child and social relationships - arises within teams when there is a very strong connection. At that moment, people start doing a lot more for one another.

So, if you can demonstrate that a certain straw of DNA is much more sensitive to oxytocin, you can use that information to assess salespeople, for example.
You see, sales people that are more sensitive to oxytocin are better at helping people. They create a relationship, which may not help in making the sale.

So, if you are looking for a salesperson for a transactional function, then you know that oxytocin could have a negative influence because these people value the relationship more and are worse at chasing and closing deals. You can measure that through DNA from saliva.

Do you have another example?

Right after you give a monkey sugarwater, its dopamine levels shoot up. If you tell the same monkey, that in the near future, sugar water will appear, its dopamine levels shoot up too.

But what happens, after it actually receives the sugar water, is almost nothing.

It’s the same with leaders. Those that are constantly looking for new things, opportunities, strategies for the company, that’s really wired into their dopamine system. Everything you do, think about and feel follows from biological signals in the brain. Those are the hormones that drive you to action.

Can we ‘escape’ our DNA?

Your parents’ DNA determines physiologically who you are now, your automatic behaviours. We call that your factory settings. What we did not know before, but do now, is that the playing field between your factory settings and your capabilities in learning new things is manageable. Something you are not proud of about yourself, you can train that continuously, up until the point it stops being part of who you are.

It was always thought someone was born with certain DNA and developed away from that. Now, we see that, between 34-56, people actually go back to their DNA. At a certain point in your life, you acquire status, (financial) freedom and your children leave home. Then, there is room to look back on what you have done for the past twenty years. People ask themselves ‘do I want the same for the next ten years?’ That is probably where the midlife crisis originates, because you have deviated from your normal patterns, and have to once again give attention to your inner self if you are still able to locate it!

So can talent be created?

We believe that talent can be created. The brain is very plastic. We are able to learn a great deal. On all fronts, regarding skills and competencies, the brain can be actively developed.

But can we help someone be successful in the future? The goal of our test is to literally give people insights into their DNA, to help them know how long they are carrying something with them, if something is a natural talent, or if it’s draining energy because it was taught and did not come from within.

Is having talent ‘enough’?

Identifying talent is one thing, but it’s certainly not all. Ed van der Sande, Managing Partner and Head of the Tech & Services Practice of Odgers Berndtson Amsterdam, shares his views.

“Some of these profiling tools give you a sense of what an individual’s natural talent is. Everybody has a talent for something, and a DNA test helps to understand where that natural talent lies.

But the question remains: ‘what have you got the talent for?’ “Someone might have talent, but not necessarily a talent for leadership. When you get to be a proper leader, the tensions of the job mean you often can’t learn quick enough on the job to expand your leadership strength. Sometimes it’s best to not take a leadership role.”

So how do we go about profiling people who may have more of a talent for leadership than others?

“To help companies to assess and develop exceptional leadership at an executive level, Eric Beaudan, Global Head, Leadership Practice, Odgers Berndtson, Toronto designed our proprietary Leaderfit™ programme. A model with 6 performance competencies and 4 potential competencies, it provides a structure, robust enough to identify essential psychometric norms, and flexible enough for customisation to a client’s unique business.

“Based on many years of relevant, hands-on projects with progressive businesses, it distils the competency process into the clear, definable and essential aspects of leadership assessment. It encourages exploration of the uniqueness and creativity that could otherwise be missed.”

If you want to know more about Leaderfit and how it might work for you or your business, please get in touch.

Ed van der Sande

Ed van der Sande is the Managing Partner of the Dutch office of Odgers Berndtson, where he leads the Business Services & Technology practice. Ed is a trusted advisor to a number of organisations i...

Eric Beaudan

Eric Beaudan is the Global Head, Leadership Practice at Odgers Berndtson, based in Toronto. Using the proprietary LeaderFit assessment method he designed, Eric works with organizations to assess an...

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