How to harness employees’ hidden talents

Secret skills can be valuable

Ever felt like your talents aren’t being used? Or watched while a workmate does one role when it’s obvious to you that they have other talents that could provide real benefits to your firm?

Writing on CIO Update, Katherine Spencer Lee of Robert Half Technology says every ICT department has its star performers, but that most of the people in teams don’t stand out.

“Often, your middle-of-the-road staff members have secret talents or strengths that, if applied, can make them extremely valuable to your organisation.”

Finding those hidden talents is the first step. Spencer Lee suggests that bosses ask what their employees find fulfilling. She says while performance reviews are used to set goals, they are rarely used to ask what staff like about their job.

“Sometimes simply asking people what motivates them can yield insight into individual strengths or aptitude. For instance, a network administrator may have become involved in security issues and find this aspect of his job to be the most interesting.

“That person might be an ideal candidate for in-depth training in network security in order to play a larger role on future initiatives,” Spencer Lee writes.

Spencer Lee suggests asking for volunteers when establishing project teams, rather than using the same people each time. “There may be opportunities for others in your group to assume new responsibilities and grow professionally.”

Flexibility in job descriptions is another Spencer Lee recommendation.

“For instance, a helpdesk professional with a flair for writing might be able to use down time to develop some basic technical documentation for the support section of the company website. If your job descriptions are too strict you may not be giving people the freedom to test their talents, make new contributions to the firm or cross-train in other areas.”

Another way to discover employee strengths is to ask for feedback from the employee’s co-workers and clients (a 360-degree review). “Remember that managers may not always be aware of the strengths their employees possess… These ‘360-degree’ evaluations may help you identify hidden talents.”

Spencer Lees uses the example of an applications developer who is good at leadership or a web page designer who is good at resolving departmental conflicts.

Writing in Entreprenuer (and reproduced in HighBeam Research), Chris Penttila says tapping into hidden talents is important for companies. She quotes a survey of 2,400 people in 2003 that found two-thirds wanted to leave their companies because there weren't enough development opportunities.

“While skills and knowledge can be learned, talent is instinctive. An administrative assistant could have a knack for negotiation, or an accountant a penchant for spotting industry trends. Employees may also have ‘black market’ talents — like photography or musical ability — that don't seem relevant to the workplace but can ‘make new things happen’ if used strategically…”

Penttila quotes one consultant who claims his research has found that someone using their talents has twice the productivity of someone who does not have a natural talent for that job.

Like Spencer Lee, Penttila suggests one-on-one discussions with staff about what drives them. “What are their hobbies and interests, and how do they feel they're being underutilised at work? Contemplate how you can incorporate their hidden talents, and phase in change slowly.”

Penttila says company meetings can be a good way to allow staff the chance to offer solutions to problems.

“You might be surprised what people know.”

The people Penttila interviews says it can make a difference to staff retention, something that is vital in today’s competitive labour market. Writing on Insider Reports, the president of a corporate coaching and consulting firm, Carole Nicolaides, says the current employee turnover rate is two years. “Progressive companies across the globe are finding that coaching is the best way of working with employees.”

She writes that coaching allows companies to discover employees’ hidden talents.

“The hidden talents your employees have may very well surprise you. You might already have all the talent you need to accomplish your goals without hiring additional personnel.”

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