What Would Miley Do?

I’m not kidding. The 20-year-old wunderkind of the pop zeitgeist is a model for how to manage talent.

Previously known mostly to tweens and their parents, Cyrus burst into our collective consciousness with a jaw-dropping performance at the MTV Video Music Awards in August. It marked a watershed moment, indelibly shifting the nation’s perception of her from Disney’s sweet, gee-whiz Hannah Montana to today’s enfant terrible of popular music.

If you haven’t seen the performance, I won’t spoil it. But be aware that in grand MTV VMA fashion, it’s not for the faint of heart or gray of hair. In a well-choreographed progression, Cyrus followed that performance with a series of further shocks to the system via risqué photos and music videos that further peeled back her squeaky clean child star reputation.

It worked. A month or so ago, I wouldn’t have been able to pick Cyrus out of a lineup of pop starlets. Now I’m writing a column about her.

That brings me to the point. The new Cyrus did more than cause a legion of mothers to cover their children’s eyes and elicit a chorus of tsk-tsks from cultural critics. Her manic pop gyrations should serve as a wake-up call for talent managers.

Talented people don’t always play by the rules. The career paths they follow are not always the ones laid before them. Sometimes they veer off in ways that can surprise and even shock.

To hear Cyrus tell it, watchers shouldn’t be so surprised by what seems like an overnight shift from G-rated pop princess to racy R-rated rebel. Some were offended by her performance — their sensibilities attacked and expectations shattered. Please. Rebellion against expectations has been the hallmark of young adults, and in particular musicians, forever. Before Miley there was Britney Spears. Before Britney there was Madonna. Nina Simone and Etta James burst through barricades long before them.

Even mature adults bristle when they feel boxed in by what others feel is expected of them. Bob Dylan famously alienated his fans in the 1960s when he stopped playing folky, acoustic protest music and switched on the electricity. In business, when Sam Walton was told in 1962 to forget about trying to open large discount stores in small towns, he struck out on his own and founded Wal-Mart, growing it into the world’s largest corporate employer.

Talented people will do what talented people want to do, and it very well might not match expectations. Rather than dwell on shock and surprise, we should pay attention to the signs of their movements in order to take action.

There are always signs. In an interview, Cyrus bristled at the notion that her new image, style and persona are a sudden transformation. She called it a “movement.” For her, it’s all a logical progression from child star to grown-up performer.

For talent managers, it’s a basic message. Pay attention to your talented people, both in what they say and what they do, so you’re not caught off guard. Watch for the signs of a progression so you can take action. That action could mean taking steps to retain them by challenging and developing them with a new project or role. If you want them to stay, they have to feel like they have room to grow and freedom to experiment.

It also means being open to their exit from your stage. There comes a time when they need to go, and you should do your best to help them in that transition. There are limits, and part of the role of the talent manager is to help people understand when they’ve hit them and explore their options. All too often, the dynamic employment relationship is bound by static demands and expectations.

When it comes to managing talent, it pays to ask what Miley would do. Careers can turn in ways that lead to discomfort. Performances can shock and surprise. But being open to movement and progression can result in happier employees and stronger and more lasting relationships. Either way, the show will go on.