How to identify the right people for talent development

When we go in to help organizations make the most of their available talent, one of the first things we do is identify the right people for development opportunities. These are people at the second, third, and fourth levels down in an organization--underutilized talent in lower-level positions with a whole lot more to offer.

Time and again, the most consistent source of “hidden talent” has been hidden in plain sight, at lower levels of the organization. But why do these superstars remain under the radar and, more importantly, how can you identify the hidden talent in your own organization?


Get to the bottom of why that person is hidden at a lower level

The first step in identifying your hidden talent is getting an idea of how they got there in the first place. How did the individual end up in that lower-level role? Maybe they have gaps in their education or training. They could lack relative experience, confidence, or career savvy. Or, for too many people, they simply had unfortunate timing.

These are some of the most common reasons we see superstar talent fly under the radar:

  • Workforce reentry following a period of absence
  • Career pivots to new fields, industries, or specialties
  • A move to a new community
  • They are relatively younger or newer to the workforce

The golden question: Are they willing to go far beyond their current role?

At the heart of identifying the best people for development is answering: "Is this somebody who would be willing and able to go far beyond their current role?"

Measuring ability is easy. Gauging someone's will is a bit trickier.

The best shortcut we have found is to ask around. What do their colleagues think? Pay particular attention to the opinions of any lateral colleagues this person must regularly collaborate with.

Keep in mind that ambition and enthusiasm are not necessarily good indicators of a hidden superstar. More often, it is the people quietly adding value to every single interaction they have. One of our favorite questions to ask is, "If all the other employees were gone for a month and you could only have yourself and three others to work with, which three people would you pick? And why?" Pay attention to which names come up over and over again, and which skills or qualities make those people especially great to work with.


Don't get hung up on skill or knowledge gaps

Yes: whomever you choose to develop or advance into a new role must have the critical skills and knowledge to do that important work. But skill and knowledge gaps are much easier to fill than gaps in conduct, attitude, or behavior.

When we identify hidden talent we are looking for something more: the special way go-to people show up and conduct themselves--an unusual level of professionalism. They are rooted in best practices, but open-minded and flexible. They can be trusted to deliver for people, usually described as great team players with a strong commitment to service.

After 27 years conducting assessment interviews in organizations of all shapes and sizes, this is what we look for:

  • Hunger and talent for learning new skills and knowledge. Do they demonstrate the ability to learn from experience, from others, and from their own desire to improve?
  • A track record for adding value in every experience they have. Do they manifest ambition to do more? Do they consistently put in discretionary effort?
  • Not just willingness to work hard, but efforts to work smart and execute. Do they consistently get stuff done?
  • Doing great work and being "great to work with." Do they have the skills necessary for working with others in today's highly collaborative work environment?

If you find someone who meets these requirements, identify them as a special retention priority and target them for concentrated development. They are likely very good candidates for some of those important roles higher-up in the organization that have been so hard to fill.

After all, if you need to find new talent to replace those leaving in this wave of turnover, why not invest in someone already doing great work for you?


Download our MISSING BASICS COMPETENCY MODEL if you want to dig deeper into identifying the hidden talent on your team.


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Bruce Tulgan: Founder of RainmakerThinking, Inc. and Top Expert on Leadership Development and Generational Issues in the Workplace

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