Everywhere I go, business leaders and managers tell me about the serious talent shortages they are facing—more severe than any time in decades. Employees are in much greater demand than supply in nearly every industry in nearly every region. Some suggest finding “hidden talent” by tapping nontraditional talent pools including older workers, workers with disabilities, military veterans, and formerly incarcerated people.
Meanwhile, way too often, the most fruitful talent pool employers overlook may be the surplus talent hiding in plain sight, within their own employee ranks.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not talking here about squeezing more productivity out of your current employees. Sure, lots of perpetually understaffed teams have no choice but to ask current employees to do more of what they are already doing—just better and faster.
At the same time, plenty of organizations are leaving important roles entirely unfilled—usually a little higher up in the organization chart. Why? Hiring managers will tell you that they simply cannot find enough candidates with the necessary skills and experience for these higher-level positions and, when they do find those in-demand candidates, they drive a very hard bargain. Of course, some positions—registered nurse, Certified Public Accountant, Project Management Professional, commercial driver, or whatever—require more or less specific training and certification, which the employer may or may not be able to help accelerate. But there are also many positions that don’t require specific credentials yet nonetheless remain unfilled.
What about identifying and tapping your own high-potential employees—a little bit further down the chain of command—for some of those important unfilled roles a little bit higher up?
- There is a salesperson who has what it takes to fill that open sales manager position now . . . and who knows how far she might climb? Yes, she might need extra guidance, direction, support, and coaching to jump into a management role. But think of how much she’ll appreciate being tapped for leadership.
- What about the house cleaner in the motel who became general manager? She was able to leap over multiple levels and run a 40-room motel and a staff of nine, where she proved to be incredibly committed, effective, and loyal.
- And there’s the home health care aide who was able to rise into a care service scheduling coordinator, in charge of scheduling dozens of home health aides on an ongoing basis to fill shifts caring for numerous clients. Every single day she is determined to show the management they made the right choice.
- And there’s the warehouse shipping and receiving clerk who took over leadership of a whole team of incoming quality inspectors.
- Even in fields like law, accounting, healthcare, engineering, funeral directing, plumbing, electrical, and on and on—where specific credentials are typically required—some firms are realizing that some of their most capable nonprofessionals and paraprofessionals can handle work that would typically be reserved for credentialed professionals.
Of course, there are risks associated with this strategy too. You cannot tap just anybody for these higher-level roles and responsibilities. You need to apply due diligence to identify the right people to bet on for these stretch roles. Then you need to do everything you can to set them up for success.
When my firm goes in to do a talent assessment, we help the leadership get to know their people a whole lot better very, very fast. Our reports include profiles of key people, not just at the top, but at the second, third, and fourth levels down. As a result, we find plenty of problems hiding below the radar—but just as often we identify underutilized talent. These are high-potential individuals in lower-level positions with a whole lot more to offer.
How did the individual end up in that lower-level role? Maybe they have gaps in their education or training; or a lack of experience, confidence, or career savvy; or they had unfortunate timing. Perhaps they left the workforce for a while and reentered, changed fields or communities, or they are just young.
This is somebody who would be willing and able to go far beyond their current role. But the person is hiding in plain sight. None of the right people have yet noticed this person, identified their potential, and considered them for one of those hard-to-fill roles a little bit further up in the organization.
I pride myself on finding these people. How? In short, I ask everybody about everybody. It’s like a multidimensional 360—an organizational MRI.
One of my favorite questions to ask is: “If all the other employees were gone for a week (or a month) and you could only have yourself and three others, which three people would you pick? And why?”
The same names come up over and again at each level, in every sphere. Sure, these are often people with critical skills and knowledge who do important work. But almost always there is something more: It’s the special way they show up and conduct themselves—an unusual level of professionalism. It’s the special way they think—rooted in established best practices but also being open-minded. It’s the way they can be trusted to deliver for people—great team players with a strong commitment to service.
After 27 years of doing these assessment interviews, this is what I’m looking for:
- Not just the skills and knowledge they have today, but their apparent hunger and talent for learning new skills and knowledge.
- Not just their quantity of experience, but their record of adding value in every experience they do have. Do they manifest ambition to do more? Do they consistently put in discretionary effort?
- Not just their willingness to work hard, but also apparent efforts to work smart and execute. Do they consistently get stuff done?
- Not just doing great work, but also being “great to work with.” Do they have good work-oriented people skills (planning, spelling out expectations, giving and receiving feedback)?
If you can find the people who do these things consistently, you should identify them as special retention priorities and target them for concentrated development. They are likely very good candidates for some of those important roles higher up that have been so hard to fill.
If you are going to take a chance, take a chance on one of your own.
Bruce Tulgan is a best-selling author, an adviser to business leaders all over the world, and a sought-after keynote speaker. He is the founder and chair of RainmakerThinking, and since 1995, he has worked with tens of thousands of leaders and managers in hundreds of organizations, ranging from Aetna to Walmart and from the U.S. Army to the YMCA.