Tapping the Wealth of Hidden Talent

How to Develop Leadership Potential in Others and Ourselves

Nearly every CEO in corporate America wrestles with the same serious problem—one that threatens their current and future profitability. It’s the huge and growing gap between the demand for talent and the availability of talent.

This talent crisis is keeping executives up at night.

  • In a 2014 survey, 70 percent of corporate executives ranked “capability gaps” among their top five challenges.
  • Nearly two-thirds of CEOs are concerned about a scarcity of key skills.
  • Worldwide, one in three employers is struggling to fill vacancies due to a lack of available talent—the highest number since 2007. They’re also struggling with the resulting revenue losses.

Apart from the difficulty they face finding outside talent and developing their own future leaders, companies struggle to retain their best people. When they attempt to fill the vacancies left behind, they hire the wrong candidates 82 percent of the time. And too little is being done to turn things around.

This shortage of talent is a complex problem, made worse by the shifting demands and uncertainty of a global marketplace. To begin to address it effectively at the organizational level, there are at least three questions you must ask.

What Does It Take to Fill the Pipeline?

Building a strong leadership bench, writes corporate consultant and researcher Gregory C. Kesler, isn’t as much about identifying potential replacements as it is developing and strengthening the entire organizational pipeline from top to bottom. Success depends on having a leadership team and culture that prioritize talent identification and ongoing development.

Kesler emphasizes the need for company executives to use common language and standards to discern and discuss employees’ leadership potential. He recommends that they think strategically and identify the types of knowledge, skills, and traits that drive growth—and then evaluate based on those.

In many companies, once potential future leaders are identified, talent development is relegated to the HR department. But as succession expert Jeffrey M. Cohn argues, the process works best when it happens in the trenches. It should be up to operational managers with core business responsibilities “to recognize subordinates’ developmental needs, to help them cultivate new skills, and to provide them opportunities for professional development and personal growth.” Ideally, this process would involve continuous mentoring and feedback as well as encouraging innovation and risk.

Wharton School management professor Peter Cappelli has a slightly different prescription for filling the talent pipeline. He urges businesses to adopt a new kind of talent management model—what he calls a “talent-on-demand framework,” akin to a manufacturing supply chain. In this model, business leaders forecast their talent needs (rather than mapping long-term career paths) and determine how to develop talent in a cost-effective way.

For example, some companies invite employees to work on projects with senior leaders on a voluntary basis. Others ask employees to rank available projects while asking project leaders to rank employees; senior leaders make matches based on the potential for talent development in each case.

No matter what pipeline strategy businesses employ, they must make talent development a priority throughout the organization and provide opportunities for leadership candidates to assume greater roles and responsibilities. They must also deliver frequent, specific, actionable feedback so employees understand exactly what they need to succeed, where they excel, and how they can improve.

What’s the Best Way to Develop Future Leaders?

In the scientific and business communities, there’s an ongoing debate about how best to develop talent. Some experts advocate for strength-based coaching as a way of making top-tier candidates even more effective. Others see greater value in using weakness-based coaching to combat and overcome deficiencies, thereby making the entire team stronger.

Strength-based coaching: From rising star to rock star 

“Luck is only important insofar as getting the chance to sell yourself at the right moment. After that, you’ve got to have talent and know how to use it.” – Frank Sinatra

Writing for the New Yorker, Maria Konnikova cites scientific research showing that in a wide range of fields, from sports and aviation to business and technology, natural ability is more important to success than practice. Most of us know this intuitively; we’ve watched a select few individuals ride their natural talents to greatness with seemingly little effort, while most people around them struggle to reach higher levels of proficiency.

In a race to the top, having the right raw material is a big advantage; people who were “born to succeed” in a given area tend to begin the race at a quicker pace and a bit closer to the finish line. But to achieve their full potential, even the most naturally talented individuals must put in the work required.

This is the rationale behind StrengthsFinder, Strategic Coach, and the other strength-based coaching programs lauded and used by all kinds of organizations and millions of their employees. These programs are regarded as particularly useful tools for identifying and reinforcing standout abilities and traits. Many CEOs rely on strength-based coaching programs to achieve peak performance; to compensate for their weaknesses, they surround themselves with people who excel in those areas.

Not everyone is on board with strength-based coaching, however.

Some see major downsides to this approach. Writing for the Harvard Business Review, Tomas Charmorro-Premuzic calls for a return to weakness-based coaching. Not only does he see greater value in mitigating the weaknesses that sabotage our careers and lives, but he also believes that focusing exclusively on our strengths actually sets us back.

Weakness-based coaching: Building a better team

“Genius is one percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration.” – Albert Einstein

To become world-class athletes or musicians, those of us who aren’t “naturals” would likely have to work harder and longer to achieve the same result as our naturally gifted peers. But some experts argue there’s no reason we can’t reach the top—and every reason to believe we can—if we have enough determination and discipline.

In fact, research suggests high achievers tend to reach the top not through sheer force of talent (which often isn’t remarkable to begin with) but by zeroing in on their weaknesses and concentrating on overcoming them. This process, which typically involves continuous feedback from a coach or mentor, is known as “deliberate practice.” It’s not mindless repetition, but an intense focus on what needs fixing.

In sports and the performing arts, this is common practice. Coaches and teachers encourage students to stretch beyond their comfort zone—even if exasperating and painful—to get better. In much of the business world, however, employees must create their own opportunities for growth without the benefit of continuous feedback and mentoring. Very few of these aspiring leaders can commit the time and energy it would take, outside of their daily responsibilities, to rise to the top of their profession or organization. (This strengthens the argument by Kesler and others that companies must prioritize talent development all along the pipeline—and must put managers in charge of developing their employees’ talent.)

In his podcast episode “My Little Hundred Million,” Malcolm Gladwell argues for weakness-based coaching by citing the example of Hank Rowan’s decision in 1992 to give a gift of $100 million to Glassboro State College, a small public university in New Jersey. Rowan believed that strengthening Glassboro’s engineering school—providing new opportunities for local and regional working-class students to hone their skills and talents—would have a greater societal impact than would supporting an already wealthy institution such as Stanford or Cornell.  

This is the weak-link argument put forth by economists Chris Anderson and David Sally, authors of The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Soccer Is Wrong. They explain that, just like a soccer team, we (as individuals and as organizations) score more points and win more often when our weakest players are made better—thereby setting up our strongest players for a winning goal.

The Argument for a Balanced Approach

Natural talents and abilities are invaluable assets. But regardless of the extent and nature of a person’s inborn traits, he or she can’t achieve greatness without the requisite desire—and a vehicle for getting there. Aspiring leaders must have the self-awareness to choose a suitable path and be committed to reaching higher levels, and their employers must meet them halfway by providing opportunities for growth.

Both strength-based coaching and weakness-based coaching have their advantages, but relying exclusively on one or the other could be problematic. According to leadership coach DeAnna Murphy, a one-sided approach tends to paint a warped or incomplete picture of an individual’s true potential and can have toxic effects in the workplace. For organizations, this translates to negligible ROI, declining morale, and a tragic waste of human capital.

Each of these approaches is a lens individuals can use to see themselves more clearly. When only one type of coaching is used, depth perception is bound to suffer, making forward progress nearly impossible. When used together, strength-based and weakness-based coaching can provide a more realistic view of the talent that begs to be unlocked and any weaknesses that stand in the way.

What Do You Need to Make Real Progress?

Unleashing latent talent, thus strengthening the talent pipeline in your organization, will require a focused effort on three fronts:

  • Strategic, tangible goals—Individuals must define their personal and professional goals, and what it will take to achieve them.
  • Assessment of talent—Choose an approach that best suits the individual’s and the organization’s needs (strength-based, weakness-based, or both). Develop your star players, or strengthen the team: where do you see the biggest return? Which approach will give you the greatest confidence in the results?
  • Structured process—Assign responsibility for talent development (identifying potential and problems, providing opportunities, coaching/mentoring, etc.), outline the traits most in need of developing, and choose the metrics you’ll use to measure progress.

Above all, individuals and employers must recognize the impetus is on them. The seeds of greatness may already be in their midst, or in themselves—buried deep, dormant, and thirsting for opportunity and guidance. To tap that hidden bounty and reap the long-term rewards, all parties must be fully invested in the effort, define the path forward in detail, and hold themselves accountable for the results.

Tapping the Wealth of Hidden Talent

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