Hidden Gems

Every once and a while I catch myself feeling a bit self satisfied about something that I think I do particularly well. This is usually a good indication that I am about to be humbled. A recent experience counts as a further reminder to myself to watch out for any emergent hubris.

Having a dozen years of leadership experience and five as an executive coach, I had started to feel comfortable with my ability to recognize exceptionally talented and highly capable people. Just as this feeling started to manifest, I was reminded just how challenging it can be to be a talent prospector - finding those hidden gems among the tons of ore - not because they are rare - but because we are often incapable of seeing them when they are right in front of us.

I just started working with a young executive that I had known for sometime on more of a peripheral basis. My impression of him was that he was a nice guy, quite unassuming, seemed reasonably intelligent but did not appear to me to have the "diamond" quality that I tend to associate with the true future "world changers". I would have rated him as having moderate potential. Then I started to work with him.

Is there a rating that exceeds "diamond"?  Blue diamond perhaps? This young man not only is exceedingly bright from a intellectual perspective, he also has an incredible world view, strong people skills, a high level of self awareness and an incredible commitment (supported by a track record) to making a significant difference in the world.  How did I miss this stuff? Why was my talent divining rod so reluctant to twitch?

I believe part of the problem is that I have been seduced by my own idea of what constitutes a "great employee" or "exceptional leader".  In other words, when I see what I want to see, I get excited about the find.  The bigger question is, "how does the limited framework of my expectation prevent me from seeing true potential that might be manifested in a different way?"  Well here is a process that just might help.

When looking for talent, I now purposefully go through two mental checklists. The first is to assess how the individual in question "fits' my personal leadership model. In other words, am I inspired to work with and/or for this individual?

I think I have spoken about my leadership model before so I won't go into this in any great detail but just for the record, I look for leaders that:

  1. Are passionate visionaries,
  2. Demonstrate personal and managerial courage,
  3. Have situational and operational awareness,
  4. Are worthy of being followed, e.g. have strong integrity around their values and belief systems,
  5. Seek continuous improvement in themselves, in others and in everything else.

You'll note that there are no "skills" on this list because quite frankly, skills can be taught. I use this model to personally assess raw talent or personal leadership potential and even if people do not have specific answers to the questions that arise from this model, (i.e. what is your vision for the future of your organization?), it is enough that they want to know that answer for themselves.  Clearly, this is where the coaching process can transform the raw talent into realized potential and exceptional performance. 

I now go through a second mental checklist that is kind of an opposite perspective check. This is not to say that I look for people who are ignorant, insouciant, morally bankrupt, self serving cowards, (although now that I think about it - it might be fun to do so), It is more of a mental reframe to help me see people in a more holistic way. 

For example, if I take my model and challenge myself to think about it from a less obvious perspective, then the following exploration becomes possible: 

  1. Passionate Visionaries: What is the passion or commitment in this individual that I am not seeing?  How does this person demonstrate passion for something if it isn't an overt expression of energy? How might their leadership style reflect personal commitment in a way that isn't what I am used to seeing?
  2. Courage: What does this person stand for?  Is their courage reflected by an uncompromised "no fly zone" as opposed to a "damn the torpedos" approach or a "take no prisoners" sort of courage? How might courage be reflected in an apparently softer or at least a less confrontational decision making style?
  3. Situational Awareness: What does a more "hands off" style of leadership mean about this individual's leadership potential? What does this say about this individual's comfort with trust? What does it say about this individual's "need to know" or ability to think more strategically rather than tactically?
  4. Worthiness: How do I evaluate the value of humility? How can I assess a strong and consistent belief system that is different than my own? What faults does this individual have that people are willing to accommodate because of his consistent behavior or personal awareness of those faults?
  5. Improvement: What if this individual did not focus on making things better but indeed making new things? Where does innovation and creativity take over from incremental growth and refinement? What if this individual was a radical thought leader rather than an optimizer?

So by challenging my interpretation of my own leadership model - I end up with an ability to see people's potential in a far more holistic way and it is my hope that in so doing, I will not miss as many of the "gems" that are waiting to be recognized. I encourage you to document your own leadership model and then turn it around in the same way. You may be surprised (as I have been) about what you see and the gems you find. 

The second part of the problem has to do with the "gems" themselves. Talent scouts are not mind readers and I think it is time that people reframe their humility so that they can articulate the truth of their talent and ability without appearing to be egocentric braggarts. My coach helped me with this by highlighting that the "truth" does not need to be relative. Let me explain. 

It occurs to me that a lot of our reluctance to express the truth about our abilities, talents or even accomplishments stems from the idea that if we are successful it is somehow at the expense of someone else.  This is the "relativistic" perspective that says if I am good, it means that somehow you are less good.  

Well good does not mean "better" or "best", it just means good. I think if the humble and the modest among us can see that their success does not demand the failure of another - then we can be honest and forthright about who we are in a way that is quite compelling rather than off putting. 

People have told me that I am a good writer and that they enjoy reading my work. I used to deflect this acknowledgement on a regular basis and then I realized just how disrespectful that deflection was to the other person's opinion! I now say "thank you" and while it is not always easy to do so, by doing so I am in fact honoring the other person.  I am a good writer - and I need not be better than anyone else to acknowledge that fact. The other thing that helped me shift away from this "false modesty" is a recognition that I was anticipating, expecting or projecting a response in the other person every time I expressed some fact or truth about my past accomplishments or my inherent skills and talents.  If you have ever told yourself: "They will think I am bragging", or "They will feel embarrassed or inadequate if I tell them this...", then you are guilty of the same offence.  

I am now quite comfortable in letting those other individuals have whatever experience they want as a result of our dialog without me precluding their opportunity to have that experience in the first place as a result of my anticipation or projection about their possible response! 

So - hidden gems out there - if you are worried about being a braggart and that concern keeps you from telling people the truth about yourself - stop being so arrogant as to presume a response from someone else!  Clearly, if the mere thought that you might be perceived as a braggart concerns you, it pretty much guarantees that you are not a braggart.  Please stop worrying about it and tell us your story.  We are interested and who knows what you might accomplish by enrolling supporters who value your for who you are and what you have already done! The possibilities and opportunities are enormous!

Gord's Blog

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