How to discover your employees' hidden talents

It takes time, energy and money to recruit an employee. It makes sense to make the most of them.

Your employees may have hidden skills. How do you discover them?

As a keynote speaker, author and facilitator of new ways of working, Lynne Cazaly is often a sounding board when conferences wind down and people start to open up about themselves. In recent years, she’s noticed something of a pattern in the topics being raised.

“Conversations would invariably start with ‘In a previous life’, and these people would tell me about where they had worked, what they had done before and then the experience they had carried forward from that,” Cazaly says. “This wasn’t just one workshop I did, it has been happening over years now.”

What surprised Cazaly was that in many instances, these “previous lives” or extra skills weren’t known about or utilised in a current workplace setting. It got her thinking about how to extract them for the benefit of employer and employee alike.

Cazaly conducts facilitation workshops, which help break down barriers between management and staff, allowing employees to tell short stories about themselves in a more comfortable environment.

Some of the chats have unearthed extraordinary things – like a woman who led an architectural design team who had worked as a triage nurse, people who have had long former careers in the armed services, and someone who runs a charity while maintaining their day job.

Rather than shy away from things that fall outside the typical job descriptions, Cazaly says it is incumbent upon modern organisations to embrace the diverse experiences that can be brought to the table.

“What we are doing is trying to make the workplace more enjoyable for people to use the full gamut of their skills, and also help an organisation leverage the people they have gone to the trouble of hiring,” she says.

Since future employees will surely present the best version of themselves at job interviews, just how is it that these skills are getting lost in the first place? For EverestEngineering CEO Craig Brown – who has spent the past two decades championing collaborative leadership and innovative disruption – it is a two-fold issue of the recruitment process itself, and the machinations of the modern workplace.

Job advertisements

He’s experienced the issue first-hand in a previous role, where he had to recruit business analysts for a technology company. At first, he was getting strong candidates, but after a while found the pool getting shallower and shallower, and virtually no women applied for the roles. However, after discussions with others, it became apparent that the issue might have been with how he was wording the role.

A deep dive into what was actually required for the position suggested it was as much aligned with product management as it was with being a traditional business analyst.

Subsequently the ads were rewritten, and the net result was the new batch of interviewees were almost 60 per cent women, and the quality of candidates overall was much higher.

“Part of how you spin the story shapes the outcomes you get,” he says.

“What we are doing is trying to make the workplace more enjoyable for people to use the full gamut of their skills, and also help an organisation leverage the people they have gone to the trouble of hiring.” Lynne Cazaly

Brown is a big proponent of moving away from what management theorist Henry Mintzberg coined as “machine bureaucracy”, where large, set-in-their ways organisations may be profitable because people are employed and work as part of a machine, but lack fluidity and often have local ineffciencies that may prove costly in the long term.

These types of companies, Brown says, will employ people for roles and will often find it difficult to reshape that position or push people out of their comfort zones. “When you first turn up to a job, you get introduced in a certain way and you act in a certain way. That is how you are then perceived,” says Brown, who advocates strong management being able to pull employees out of established contexts and not getting caught up too much in job titles.

“One of the best people I have worked with, a programmer, always struggled to tell me and others what she did other than ‘get things finished’, and she can’t really sell what she does. Yet there are dozens and dozens of people who would employ her in an instant. She is brilliant.”

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Experience maps

Drawing out the full skill range of such quiet achievers can sometimes be a challenge for organisations, so Cazaly recommends the use of what she calls “experience maps”.

Rather than relying on CVs or spreadsheets, which she says people are unlikely to read, she suggests managers get all staff to create a simple map that charts what people have done and broad-based skills they have acquired. It can be specific business talents, or more general experience in activities such as photography or a second language.

An “experience meeting” can then be scheduled where people can discuss their maps for a few minutes, and copies of them can be kept and updated. For employees, it can provide the opportunity to use and be appreciated for a range of skills, and for employers it can help the bottom line.

“It takes time, energy and money to recruit an employee,” she says. “It makes sense to make the most of them.”

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April 2020
April 2020

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