Spotting those hidden talents in your workforce

Do you have someone on your payroll with untapped skills? Most companies do but don't even know it.

Take Jeremy Lin, the New York Knicks' sensational new point guard. Due to injuries and the poor performance of other players, he was thrust into the starting lineup and has become a star. You'd have to live under a rock to not have read about Linsanity.

Lin did well playing high school basketball in Palo Alto, Calif., but he couldn't garner any athletic scholarships from the California colleges he wanted to attend, so he walked on at Harvard. Then he was undrafted by the NBA. He was eventually signed and cut by two teams when the Knicks claimed him off waivers. The Knicks were about to let him go when they decided to give him one more chance. He had a big game, then another and still another, and his career took off.

How could someone like Lin go unnoticed for so long?

In the words of Los Angeles Lakers basketball star Kobe Bryant: "Players playing that well don't usually come out of nowhere, but if you can go back and take a look, his skill level was possibly there from the beginning. It probably just wasn't noticed."

How many people on your payroll might have undetected talents?

The answer to that question goes far beyond who might be the best bowler for the company team. The mother lode is the employee whose résumé was great on its own but much more humble than the candidate proved to be.

Finding that talent is a challenge, but there are steps you can take to encourage your superstars. Try these ideas:

Pay close attention to performance reviews. Managers should be on the lookout for special abilities or exceptional initiative. Also, have employees rate their own performances and explain what areas they are especially interested in developing.

Ask for volunteers. When a new project comes along, invite employees to showcase hidden talents. Perhaps you've seen the video of the Southwest Airlines flight attendant who found a way to ensure passengers would really pay attention to preflight instructions. He used his rap skills to make the announcement. Passengers remember where the exit rows are, and the airline continues to bolster its reputation for making mundane travel fun.

Don't overlook less obvious advantages. A department assistant at an urban university liked to knit on her lunch hour. Soon other college employees brought their yarn and needles, and they gathered one day a week over lunch to make caps for newborns at the children's hospital. As they became better acquainted, interdepartmental cooperation burgeoned. The university enjoyed some very positive community reaction as well.

When phone salesman Paul Potts told the judges on "Britain's Got Talent" (a competition show like "American Idol") that he was going to sing opera, judge Simon Cowell rolled his eyes and made a stinging remark about the contestant's cheap suit.

But Potts was used to unkind remarks. Something much bigger was at stake for him. He had talent, and he knew it. What he'd always lacked were the means and confidence to pursue the singing career he dreamed about. This competition was a long shot. But it was also his last chance to connect with the recording industry and climb out of debt and a dismal job. And so he sang.

The tenor stunned the judges and brought the audience to tears with his performance.

Two CDs and two tours later, Potts insists he'll remain the humble "everyman" he's always been -- just with better suits.

Mackay's Moral: Hidden talents don't have to be huge, but the results can be.

Harvey Mackay is a Minneapolis businessman. Contact him at 612-378-6202 or e-mail harvey@mackay.com. Distributed by United Feature Syndicate.

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