A few months ago I came across an article written by Bruce Kasanoff. For those of you who didn’t happen upon it, or have never heard of Bruce, he’s pretty focused on the idea that individuals – not companies – are responsible for nurturing talent in others.
I’ve seen too many examples of successful organisational L&D to fully support this approach, but there was one phrase in his article that really struck me:
‘The person who is capable of designing a better tool is not necessarily the person with the mechanical or technical skills to build it.’
It’s pretty obvious to point this out, and it’s something most of us would agree with, but it got me thinking: does everyone in the company need to be good at everything? Should we invest time and money bringing individuals up to a ‘meets expectation’ level in competencies that other staff already excel in? Does a brilliant sports scientist really need to be fabulous at running meetings? Should this person be able to manage potential under-achievers, get budgets right to within a dollar, have excellent interpersonal skills and know how to recruit expertly?
Or should we accept that no individual can master everything, and instead focus training on areas in which they already excel? Fostering remarkable skills that then become invaluable to the individual, the team they work with and, by extension, the organisation? To me, that sounds like a much better use of everyone’s time, and talent.
An army of minions
Whether you run an SME or a Fortune 500 company, time is not an infinite resource. Focusing training on areas where staff have the potential for brilliance is an efficient (and effective) strategy. Rather than creating an army of minions who all have the same basic skill set, organisations that promote individual brilliance increase the value of the skills available to them. They ensure employees don’t waste time on areas they’ll only ever be mediocre at, facilitating greater engagement and reaping all the competitive advantages that a productive, engaged and skilful workforce provides.
Take the design team at Dropbox. It includes the founder of ‘Mailbox’, Gentry Underwood, who sold his app to Dropbox in 2013 for $100 million. Had he found himself in the traditional corporate environment, expected to invest time and energy gaining proficiency in a wide array of skills, would Gentry have been able to achieve so much so quickly?
What about Steve Jobs? Would Apple be the same today if he’d spent his time increasing his proficiency in skill areas where colleagues already excelled? Of course not. These innovators are innovators because they recognise their strengths, aren’t afraid to acknowledge their weaknesses and are happy to rely on the strengths of others.
No one excels at everything, but everyone excels at something.
So how do you nurture individual star talent?
1. Identify the movers and shakers
It sounds obvious, but knowing your employees is key. Identify the areas in which individuals excel and don’t insist that they invest time building up competence in lesser skills at the expense of brilliance.
Performance metrics can be a useful tool for gauging where individual strengths lie, but they are only an indication. Take time to talk to employees, understand their likes and dislikes, how they perceive their strengths and, most importantly, the areas peers think they excel in. You need to identify these strengths at every level of the organisation if you’re going to make the most of them.
2. Focus on success
Employees need to understand that their growth is important to your organisation. Managers who are committed to the individual progression of those under them create an open, collaborative environment in which junior staff feel free to challenge the status quo and progress.
There are a number of ways to effectively foster individual brilliance among your workforce. Career coaching enables employees to define a clear path, encourages them to identify their strengths and gives them the tools they need to fully utilise those skills. A 2012 report by the CMI ranked external coaching as the fifth most beneficial management and leadership development (MLD) practice assessed (see page 8, they looked at 26). This approach was actually cited as 32% more effective at promoting individual performance than appraisals and skills audits.
3. Ignore titles
Star performers often upset the balance of a hierarchical environment, and they should be encouraged to do so. Individuals need freedom to display their strengths, regardless of their job title, to excel. While maintaining hierarchy is important, it’s up to managers to provide staff with the freedom to think laterally and display brilliance.
By delegating tasks based on accomplishments rather than seniority, you improve the skills you’re trying to foster (in an earlier article, I touched on the fact that as much as 70% of development comes from on-the-job experience). Most importantly, assigning tasks to the people who are best at them — not best qualified or most experienced — results in a far better result.
4. Promote teamwork
Developing individual strengths does have potential drawbacks. Focusing on areas of brilliance in individual employees means that you create an environment where success is reliant on the skills of multiple individuals.
This can be a good thing, it increases engagement, facilitates greater organisational ownership and helps employees to shine. However, to be ultimately successful, this approach requires a cohesive team. Each individual must have clearly defined responsibilities and the understanding that they are one part of a bigger picture.
By removing the focus from competency areas where employees might be struggling, and encouraging improvement of outstanding skills, you should be able to create a well-honed workforce: efficient, productive, engaged in their tasks and confident of their strengths. You should be able to turn every employee into a top performing superstar, someone who contributes meaningfully to the success of your organisation and doesn’t waste time developing skills in areas where they will only ever be average.
Hierarchical environments are particularly difficult for Millennials, 34% of whom say their personal drive intimidates older colleagues. Source: PWC
A poll by the International Coach Federation found that 86% of organisations who used a career coach felt they received a good ROI. Source: ICF