How do you find an employee with the skills to head up the VR division of your agency? How do you hire a lawyer who specializes in AI?
You don’t. In a world where job requirements are constantly changing, an employee’s raw potential is more important than his or her résumé. According to Claudio Fernández-Aráoz, senior adviser at executive search firm Egon Zehnder, competency-based hiring is becoming obsolete in today’s volatile business landscape. After spending three decades studying executives’ performance, he believes that potential is the critical predictor of success.”The question is not whether your company’s employees and leaders have the right skills,” Fernández-Aráoz wrote in a 2014 Harvard Business Review article. “It’s whether they have the potential to learn new ones.”
To build a strong team, you need to identify your employees’ potential and then help them develop those hidden strengths. As my company has grown from an event production company to an experiential creative agency, my greatest pleasure has been witnessing the creative growth of my team.
Here are a few ways I’ve learned to identify hidden talents and turn potential strengths into real skills for the future:
1. Support the polymaths in your ranks
All too often, managers tend to confine high performers within the box of a single skill set, and people think they can’t do anything else. But polymaths (people with a broad range of knowledge) tend to have a more significant creative impact. This explains why some of the brightest, most creative minds have diverse interests.
Think of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, or Elon Musk. These great innovators aren’t just competent in one area. They have multiple interests that have allowed them to chase big ideas and execute them well. Not every employee is a savant, but all employees have diverse skills that will go to waste if you don’t recognize (and utilize) them.
I’ve witnessed many employees grow into surprising capabilities that lie outside their core competencies. One employee came into our company as a lawyer and has grown into one of our best creatives. I could tell she felt stifled by law and needed a chance to express other talents. If you sense that employees would like to try something else, follow your instincts. Set them loose on an unusual project, and give them the chance to flourish.
2. Don’t let employees dismiss their own hidden talents
Sometimes, it’s not leaders who discourage employees from developing their hidden strengths—it’s the employees themselves. Their professional identities become so ingrained that they’ll shy away from skills that seem too far outside their job descriptions.
We have this silly perspective in creative industries that being in sales detracts from creativity. We forget that Don Draper was a salesman—that Picasso was a salesman. I try to communicate to my team that creativity isn’t just about having great ideas. It’s about execution, and effective communication is an essential part of it.
By breaking apart these stigmas, I’ve had the privilege of seeing account managers grow into incredible creatives and strategic brand counselors. We had one employee we hired to manage client relationships, and she’s become a brilliant strategist who’s also built award-winning programs.
In the beginning, I could see this employee felt discouraged to voice her ideas, and I focused on opening up a safe forum for ideation from anyone and anywhere. Sometimes, you need to encourage employees to “lean in” to their hidden talents.
3. Practice radical vulnerability
My company produces large events. As you might expect, things can get very intense when we’re trying to fulfill last-minute requests and ensure that attendees have an unforgettable experience. When we’re in those situations, I need our team to be running at top speed. However, I also need to know what my employees want to achieve, where they want to grow, and how they want others to treat them. Without those things, you can’t expect them to maintain a high level of enthusiasm.
If you want your employees to feel comfortable expressing themselves, you need to practice being vulnerable yourself. This is why I try to be honest about my worries and fears. It brings everyone closer and makes them more comfortable sharing their feelings. When I can understand what people are thinking, I can take action to keep them happy.
4. Get out of the way
One of the principles of growing incredible employees is to watch them grow and evolve. When you have a fully fledged professional operating at a high level, you have to let that engine run, or you’re going to stifle your company’s progress.
Strong leaders aren’t intimidated by strong employees because they don’t see them as a threat. The best leaders realize that their top employees make everyone better, so they provide guidance when needed and get out of the way.
Allowing your high performers to shine comes down to autonomy. It helps to recognize that these people are in leadership roles for a reason, and you don’t need to micromanage them or question their decisions.
To build a great company, you need great people. But to nurture a team with incredible superpowers, you have to learn to see each employee as a complex individual—not a living collection of LinkedIn endorsements. As a leader, your role is to find people with potential and nurture their strengths. You’ll be surprised at the results they’ll achieve.
Brett Hyman is the president of NVE Experience Agency, a world-class experience marketing agency and event production company guided by the principle that the right moment will transform someone forever.