The Talent Within: Finding Your Hidden Gems

Aug 14, 2008

I first met John Williams when I went to work for a large financial services firm. He had been at the company for over a decade and was a top performer.

Whenever I mentioned his name, many would respond, “Oh, John! He’s always helped me out when I had a problem.” Or, “He’s one of the best-connected people I know in the company. If you need something, he’ll know where to go to get it.”

He was smart, helpful, and connected, and that’s the formula we all preach about how to succeed.

Yet, John languished in a dead-end job that was 80% clerical. He was passed over for promotions and new opportunities because everyone assumed he was happy where he was and he never sought new positions. He did not manage up well, nor did he want to. He was hoping that he might be recognized for his skills and abilities.

While some might say he lacked ambition, what John really suffered from was a lack of self-confidence and an equal lack of encouragement. I worked with him and his boss, and we eventually found a position with more responsibility where he thrived. He sought out mentors from his network and he learned the key elements of the job in weeks. In the past, whenever we hired an outsider person for this type of job it took months for them to fully understand the intricacies of the job and who to go to for advice.

We have all known people like John. In fact, our organizations are filled with people with talent, skills, and connections who may lack the self-motivation or confidence to try something new. Many are pushed down by managers who use these employees to bolster their own weaknesses and others, like John, choose to not move.

But in times of change, economic downturns, or mergers, knowing who your best people are can affect product development, profits, and sales. Many times, this hidden talent is your lifeline to success versus failure. The challenge we all face is how do you identify these people and how do you “recruit” them into new positions with significant potential risk?

Here are some ways to find these people and some strategies for convincing them to make the move.

Simply Ask is Method One

Ask every hiring manager you work with to name their two or three best employees who are also the longest serving. Their recommendations may uncover some great talent. Combine that with active listening and I believe you will find many more talented people than you expected.

That is actually how I discovered John. His manager kept telling me that John would handle this or answer this question, and because John had been with him for so long, he knew all the ins and outs. This set off my radar and I made it a point to get to know John better.

Selling the Risk

Frequently, people like John are afraid to move because they are so deeply skilled at their current job that change is uncomfortable. They are afraid they will fail and lose their job or that they are not capable of learning the new skills required.

To sell them on a change you either have to provide training and coaching or offer them the ability to return to their old job after 30 or 60 days. This is probably the time it will take to find someone to fill the old position; anyway, so not much is lost. It is important to provide a transition step or process to ease their fears and increase the chance for success.

Why bother to do this at all? It’s very simply a matter of cost and benefit: the years that person has worked at your organization and the knowledge they have, and leveraging it to further add to the organization’s talent pool, you have saved thousands of recruiting and training dollars. No internal investment in these people is going to cost you as much as hiring an unknown person from outside.

Provide Internal Development is Method Two

Just asking may not be enough. Many organizations have offered low-risk internal development programs just to engage this type of individual. IBM and HP and many other organizations have over the years offered special training programs. These are often designed to fill some looming skill shortage in a fast, efficient, and usually successful intensive development process.

IBM used to ask managers to recommend employees who met certain basic qualifications for these programs. Then internal recruiters would explain the programs and enroll the employees with a guarantee of continued employment no matter how they did and a promotion if they did well.

Needless to say, this worked well and thousands of IBM managers, programmers, and salespeople came into their jobs through these programs.

The Benefits

Payback is huge and ongoing. Employee morale goes up and the word spreads to the street that the company takes care of people, trains them, and doesn’t spend excessive money on external recruitment when good people are under their feet.

Turnover almost disappears among those who are trained as the number of 25-40 year employees of P&G, DuPont, HP, IBM, and GE all attests.

Force Them to Appear is Method Three

The third way to find these people is to force managers to make promotions and move people up or out. General Electric may be the most famous example of this philosophy exemplified by their mantra to promote the top 10% and move the bottom 10% out.

While not everyone agrees with this, it does have its merits. It forces managers to think about who performs best and who has the skills and abilities to do more than they are currently doing. It forces these managers to convince their employees that a move is positive and it forces General Electric to have stellar employee development programs. But these programs are only as good as the criteria used for selection and the persuasive powers of the manager.

Recruiters have the responsibility of thinking about themselves as talent managers and strategists. Your job is to ensure the supply of quality talent to your organization at the lowest possible price. Finding those already inside your firm is the place to look first, not last, and developing the resources and processes to do this is becoming a critical skill for talent leaders.