How to stretch your talent

My Fortune colleague Geoff Colvin reminds us in his Guest Post that the best time to test and stretch your talent is during tough times. Ever since we published Geoff’s piece on Postcards yesterday, I’ve been thinking about this a lot. Last night, at a Bank of America dinner at Manhattan’s Four Seasons restaurant to benefit the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Courage in Journalism Awards, I sat with a few renowned talent maximizers including Martha Stewart and Lesley Stahl of CBS News.

Besides the buzz about Lesley’s 60 Minutes story on BofA CEO Ken Lewis Sunday evening (the BofA folks said she captured their boss well), the talk was much about expanding your talent into new areas, like blogging. There was Martha taking notes for her blog and snapping pictures with her Canon Powershot G9–which she does at all events, including the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit three weeks ago. “What don’t you do?” asked BofA chief marketing officer Anne Finucane, sitting beside Martha. Meanwhile, Lesley Stahl said she’s been climbing her own learning curve, web-wise, via, the online community she recently launched with a bunch of prominent women.

At the end of the evening, Allen & Co. banker Nancy Peretsman–who just returned to Fortune’s Most Powerful Women list, at No. 43–swung by our table and told me how her business has never been stronger, despite tha chaos on Wall Street. Or actually, because of the chaos. Though Allen & Co. is known as a media investment bank, she’s been fielding calls in areas like consumer products and heavy industry. And accepting the far-flung assignments. So she’s stretching her talent too.

Which brings me back to Geoff Colvin, who understands talent better than any other journalist I know. In addition to Geoff’s Guest Post, take a look at the excerpt from his just-released book, Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers From Everybody Else, that appears in the current issue of Fortune. In this same issue, Geoff wrote, with Katie Benner, the cover story on General Electric and did an interview with Doug McMillon, the CEO of Sam’s Club . “Talk about incredibly productive and always ready to play,” says Andy Serwer, Fortune‘s managing editor. He calls Geoff “Fortune’s Iron Man.”

Geoff may not know this, but he’s been one of my prime teachers at Fortune. Twenty-four years ago (two months after I came to the magazine and six years after he arrived), I had my first major reporting gig, working for him on a story about financial-services supermarkets like Sears when it owned Dean Witter and Allstate. Geoff’s impressive rise–from his hometown of Vermillion, South Dakota to Harvard to NYU’s Stern School to Fortune, where he’s worked tirelessly to become business journalism’s leadership expert–reflects his basic belief: Success comes not from innate talent but from painful and demanding practice and hard work.

For another Colvin take on talent, read one of my favorite Fortune cover stories, “What It Takes to Be Great,” from 2006 and his accompanying interview with Boeing boss Jim McNerney, who reports quarterly earnings tomorrow.

P.S. I do agree with Geoff that innate talent doesn’t lead to success. But you have to wonder about that Colvin family from Vermillion, ND. Geoff’s sister is the Grammy-winning singer, Shawn Colvin.

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