More Than You Bargained For: Directing Employees’ Hidden Talents

More Than You Bargained ForI recently read an interview in The New York Times with Matthew Weiner, creator of Mad Men, and 15 year old Kiernan Shipka, who plays Sally Draper on the show. Shipka was cast for her role when she was just 6, and it sounds like expectations for the character were minimal. But as Shipka grew older, it became apparent that she was a talented actress capable of doing more than serving as a plot point for other characters. And so Weiner evolved Sally into a complicated adolescent who carries her own story lines. About noticing Shipka’s talent, Weiner says:

You’re always gambling with a child actor. I had no right to hope she’d turn out this beautiful. But you never know how a 6-year-old is going to develop. Will they become self-conscious in front of the camera or lose interest? But Kiernan is a prodigy.

This is a really interesting observation to me, because in many ways you never know exactly how any employee is going to develop. What talents does your new hire have that didn’t come through on the resume? How do personality, skill, and motivation blend in the workplace to create the sum total of what an employee contributes? And how do managers recognize when the people they’ve hired is capable of more–or different–than what they’ve been hired for?

It’s a question that particularly fascinates me because my current role at work is quite different than the one I hired in for. Over my seven years with the company, I’ve migrated from one role to another, finally settling in one that I think aligns well with my education, experience, and skills. In my case, the process of role change was gradual and slow, involving several different job titles, managers, and changes to the company organizational structure. Nobody ever moved me from A to B, but over time my role drifted further from what I’d been hired to do toward what I do today.

I can say part of my job evolution was gradually assuming more of the tasks that I am best at doing, until they comprised a bigger and more obvious part of my role. Another aspect was speaking up about the areas that are not strengths for me; this served the dual purpose of getting help and growing my skills, and alerting other people to the fact that some tasks might not be the best fit with my strengths. I was also lucky to have colleagues who recognized that I might add more value on projects and to the company in general if my role were different, and helped gain support for more formal changes to my job. Finally, the two managers who supervised me for the majority of the time with my company both gave me enough freedom to explore projects that interest me and play with my role.

Seven years, seven business cards
Seven years, seven business cards

Some keys to moving employees into the roles that fit their hidden talents then, seem to be:

  • Giving employees some freedom to add tasks to their workload that may not be a traditional part of their job, like a version of Google’s 20 percent time
  • Breaking out of typical team structures and assignments when an employee shows promise in an area outside of his or her role
  • Listening to the signals an employee is giving. Is this person volunteering repeatedly for certain tasks? Consistently avoiding others? Asking to be exposed to new areas or skills?

It takes a leap of faith to help employees evolve their jobs. Frankly, that leap won’t always be rewarded. Not all employees are Kiernan Shipkas; some won’t grow up to be beautiful, talented actresses. The hard part for managers is to recognize which employees have hidden talents and direct them effectively.