Against the backdrop of a tougher economy and market for talent, one of the biggest challenges for today’s organizations is how to optimize the talents, skills, and contribution of their workforce. To stay competitive and sustain growth in these complex and fast-changing times, organizations need to find smarter ways to improve not just the performance, motivation, and commitment of their employees, but also their intrapreneurship, creativity, and adaptability.

Yet studies show that most employers are generally not good at optimizing people’s talents, strengths, and potential. There are various reasons for this, however, some of the more common ones include:

  • Poor understanding of people’s true talents and strengths 
  • Insufficient investment in training of leaders and managers in how to conduct effective career, development, and feedback conversations
  • Poor alignment of skills development with people’s talents, career motivations and aspirations
  • Over-reliance on traditional ways of hiring and progressing talent
  • Ineffective onboarding of new hires and transition of employees moving into new roles
  • Poor identification and allocation of stretch assignments    

Below are 5 ways employers can make better use of the talents, strengths, and skills of their people.

Discover people’s unique talents and strengths

If you don’t know what qualities really energize your people, then trying to help them perform at their best becomes a matter of guesswork and trial and error. Managers often think they can work out what energizes individuals by observing what they’ve good at. Based on these subjective and biased observations, they make assumptions about what type of work people will enjoy and be good at. However, there is sometimes a big difference between what people have learned to do well and what they enjoy. One of my first managers assumed I was good at detail because I had learned to do this well. She loaded me up with detail, which quickly demotivated me and became overwhelming, as detailed work really drains my energy. Because so few people truly understand their talents and strengths, the best approach is to get them to complete an accurate and scientifically validated assessment profiler such as www.talentpredix.com . This will reduce bias and provide people with personalized insights about their talents and potential, including tasks and assignments that are likely to boost and deplete their energy.

Align skills development with people’s talents

For an innate talent to be fully optimized and be called a true “strength”, people need challenging learning and stretch opportunities to develop skills and behaviours in their areas of greatest talent. In many organizations, there is too much emphasis on identifying people’s strengths, without consideration of how these can be fully developed and optimized. This is tantamount to labelling a young musician with limited talent a virtuoso without them having put in the hard work to develop the skills and experience required to play at the mastery level.

In most organizations, there is understandably a lot of focus on upskilling and reskilling in order to future-proof the business. By aligning skills with people’s natural talents, we can help them achieve higher levels of performance in areas that are most enjoyable and important to them. This more targeted approach will yield much better returns than trying to upskill everyone or making sweeping assumptions about who will benefit the most from this upskilling based on prior experience. We have seen how badly the latter approach can backfire in companies that persist with the outdated approach of promoting high-performing technical specialists into leadership roles without any consideration of their innate talent for building, motivating and leading teams.

Invest in hiring and training managers to be great people developers

In her excellent book, Multipliers, Liz Wizeman talks about the importance of managers who can amplify the talents and capabilities of those around them through positive behaviours including inspiring and showing strong belief in them, encouragement, coaching, support, and feedback. Studies show that these “multipliers” enable people to deliver results that surpass expectations. But these leaders don’t just grow by themselves. Companies with an abundance of these types of leaders carefully select leaders with the innate talents and motivations to be strong, motivated leaders. They also invest time, effort and resources in training these leaders so they are highly skilled in how to effectively coach, develop, delegate and guide people to achieve their full potential.  And because of the leadership “trickle down effect”, great leaders promote the growth of strong and motivated leaders beneath them. This investment is the key to unlocking enabling conditions in your organizations where people feel they are doing their best work and thriving.

Design jobs and career paths that people love

The current speed and intensity of change means that roles and career paths are changing faster than ever. Many job descriptions are outdated within weeks or months of a new hire joining the company. In this rapidly changing world of work, we need to be designing roles and flexible career paths that aren’t too rigid and allow ample scope for evolution, learning and future-proofing.

In response to these changes, more and more companies are organizing around teams and projects rather than along functional lines. They allocate people to multi-disciplinary teams that work on a project in an agile way and then disband once the project is accomplished. As well as promoting collaboration, learning and diverse problem-solving, this has the added benefit of accelerating cross-functional idea generation and creativity. Other progressive organisations provide people with stretch opportunities that challenge them beyond their day-to-day tasks and activities. This provides added variety, learning and social interaction, enriching the work experience for all involved. 

Another growing trend is for organizations to introduce job crafting which enables some scope for employees to personalize their job to make it more engaging and meaningful. Job crafting can take a variety of forms, however, the most common include giving employees greater levels of autonomy and control over the type of work they do, how they perform that work and/or how to find the right balance between their work and personal life. Job crafting is of course not without challenges and is not appropriate for all roles, however, the growing trend for employees to have a greater say in their work and how it is designed is likely to accelerate in future.

Provide people with positive stretch assignments  

Studies show that providing people with stretch assignments can be a big enabler in unleashing their potential. However, not all stretch assignments are effective. It is important to align stretch assignments with people’s goals, talents, and motivations, otherwise they can easily lead to demotivation and even burnout. Managers should also find out what support, coaching and guidance people need to take on the assignment and overcome any fears or limiting beliefs they may have. Assigning people stretch assignments and leaving them to “sink or swim” is not positive stretch. Taking such a tough and uncaring approach can result in people feeling overwhelmed, unsupported, and reluctant to take on similar assignments in future.   

Companies are typically not good at identifying and communicating stretch assignments. This often results in the most interesting assignments being allocated to the same group of favoured people in the business. And research shows that the most coveted assignments are not allocated equally between men and women, with men often getting the lion’s share of these. To avoid these problems, it is important to publicize key stretch opportunities, train managers and leaders to identify and initiate more stretch conversations and promote a proactive, learner mindset across the workforce so people can identify stretch opportunities in line with their aspirations and talents.

To overcome the tsunami of challenges and succeed in today’s fast-changing and volatile world, organizations will need to employ more effective ways to identify, develop and optimize people’s talents and potential.  Businesses that invest in best-in-class talent optimization strategies such as those described above will achieve better results and gain a clear competitive edge over rivals. They will also innovate faster and be better equipped to seize new opportunities that sustain their growth and success.

About the Author

James is a leadership and talent consultant, business psychologist, and executive coach. He has over 25 years’ experience working with leaders, teams, and organizations to optimize their talent, performance, and future success.

Before moving into consulting, James held corporate leadership roles in People and Talent Management in the UK and abroad with companies such as Yahoo! and Novo Nordisk Pharmaceuticals. Since moving into talent consulting and assessment design, he has supported leaders and teams globally across many sectors and geographies. Clients he has worked with include Allen & Overy, Commvault, Equinor, Graze, LVMH, Facebook, GSK, Hilton, John Lewis, Novartis Pharmaceuticals, NHS, Oracle, Sainsbury's, Swiss Re, Tesco, WSP and Yahoo! James has founded and run several ventures, including Strengthscope®, an international strengths assessment and development business, that he sold in 2018.

James has a Master’s in Organizational Psychology, an MBA, and an Advanced Diploma in Executive Coaching. He is a regular writer and speaker on talent assessment and development, leadership, and the future of work.