The Talent Within: Finding your Hidden Gems

I first met Sally Williams when I went to work for a large financial services firm.  She had been at the company for over a decade and was a top performer.  Whenever I mentioned her name to someone, they would respond by saying something like, “Oh, Sally! She’s always helped me out when I had a problem. “Or, “She’s one of the best-connected people I know in the company. If you need something, she’ll know where to go to get it.”  She was intelligent, helpful, and connected, and that’s the formula we all preach about how to succeed.

Yet, Sally languished in a dead-end job that was 80% clerical. She was passed over for promotions and new opportunities because everyone assumed she was happy where she was, and she never sought new positions.  She did not manage up well, nor did she want to.  She was hoping that she might be recognized for her skills and abilities. While some might say she lacked ambition, Sally suffered from a lack of self-confidence and an equal lack of encouragement. I worked with her and her boss, and we eventually found a position with more responsibility where she thrived.  She sought out mentors from her network, and she learned the critical elements of the job in weeks. In the past, whenever we hired an outsider for this type of job, it took months for them to understand the intricacies of the job thoroughly and know who to go to for advice.

We all know people like Sally. Our organizations are filled with talent, skills, and connections who may lack the self-motivation or confidence to try something new. They may lack a degree or a certification that is usually needed and therefore never feel competent. Many are pushed down by managers who use these employees to bolster their weaknesses.

But, in times of high turnover and talent shortages, knowing who your best people are and finding ways to keep them is critical.  Many times this hidden talent is your lifeline to success versus failure. The challenge we all face is identifying these people and knowing how to “recruit” them into new positions with significant potential risks.

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

Overcome Their Fear of Failure

We have become so focused on credentials that we do not take advantage of the potential in so many of our employees. They often feel that they are second-class because they lack a credential or the exact training others in that position have. It is necessary for recruiters to identify those with the potential to learn new skills and who are willing to put in the effort and time to learn. It is also important to realize what parallel skills may be useful in another position.

Simply Ask

The simplest of all is to ask every hiring manager you work with to name two or three of their best employees.  Their recommendations may uncover some incredible talent.  Combine that with observation and active listening, and I believe you will find 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 of an issue.  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 worried they will fail and lose their job or are not capable of learning the new skills required.

To sell them on a change, you have to provide training and coaching or find them a mentor. It is essential 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.  By taking a sunk cost, the years that person has worked at your organization and their knowledge, 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 will cost you as much as hiring an unknown person from outside.

Provide Internal Development

But, just asking may not be enough.  Many organizations have offered low-risk internal development programs to engage this type of individual.  These are often designed to fill a looming skill-shortage quickly and efficiently. Years past, IBM asked managers to recommend employees who met specific 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 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.

Payback from development is enormous and ongoing.  Employee morale increases 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 trained employees, as the number of long-term employees of P&G, Unilever, DuPont, and IBM attests.

Force Them to Move

Another way to find these people is to force managers to make promotions and move people up or out.  General Electric may have been 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 forced ranking, it does have its merits.  It makes managers think about who performs best and has the skills and abilities to do more than they are currently doing.  It causes managers to convince their employees that a move is positive, and it forced 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.

Work With HR to Change HR Policies

In my experience, many HR policies inhibit internal movement. Even though they may have been written to stem turnover, they often encourage it. In an attempt to bring stability to the organization, they may prohibit internal transfers for some time. This means the employee may leave for another firm rather than wait. This is especially true when the job market is good, and there are talent shortages. Other policies make it mandatory for an employee to let the current manager know they are looking, which means they may not get promoted or receive the same pay increase they might have if they were not looking. HR policy is a powerful tool and needs to be well thought out to encourage internal movement.

Recruiters have the responsibility of thinking about themselves as talent managers and strategists. Their job is to ensure the supply of quality talent to their organization at the lowest possible price.  Finding people like Sally is becoming a critical skill for talent leaders.

This article originally appeared on the Future of Talent blog and has been republished here with permission.

Image source: Shutterstock

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