Making the Most of Our Talent: Not Everyone Can Sing Opera

My town’s small high school has been truly fortunate to have a choir teacher who was a world class opera baritone with the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the Washington National Opera in Washington DC, and has performed around the globe. He has often emphasized to my children as his students that hard work and effort are far more important than raw talent. That said, I would often round out his advice to my children by noting that playing to our talents when we pursue our careers makes the most of our hard work and effort—citing my own lack of singing ability to emphasize that “Not everyone can sing opera.”

The unique talent of their teacher and his experience highlight several principles that apply to our industry and are keys to fostering talent:

  1. There are a variety of roles for which specific talents are required, each of us vary significantly in what our talents are, and not everyone has those innate abilities.
  2. Work and effort are required to focus our talents and make the most of them.
  3. To keep talent engaged we need to find the right work and life balance.

In Citisoft’s Outlook this year we noted the importance of talent and the need to bring more talent into our industry. At the same time, it is important to foster and make the most of the significant talent we do have within our teams. As a frequent team leader across workstreams and functions, I’ve realized that the lessons I teach my children can be equally applied to employees that I’m managing or teams I have been a part of. Focusing on the first principle above about the variety of talents we all have, following are key actions to maximize the impact the talent of our team members can have to the bottom line:

  1. Work to understand peoples’ talents and place them in the right roles.
  2. Use the annual review process to build on talents.
  3. Concentrate on team members’ strengths while addressing their weaknesses.
  4. Spend more time with our top performers.

Place people in the right roles

It sounds obvious that we should place people in the right roles but unless we have taken the time to really recognize and understand their talents it can be all too easy to misalign people to roles that do not align with their capabilities. Taking time to notice and identify your team members’ talents and then placing them in the right roles to utilize their talents both increases their satisfaction and engagement but also benefits the whole organization. In contrast keeping someone in a role that is ill suited to them is not a kindness.

I have seen situations where someone is struggling in a position or assignment for which they lack core competencies, and managers have thought they were doing them a favor by continuing to work with them in that role instead of moving them on to another. We are better to move people towards where their abilities are going to shine. Holding them in the wrong position becomes a continual treadmill for both management and employee as they continue to struggle to improve their weaker areas instead of being transitioned to use their abilities and talents in rewarding ways. This can be difficult as people do not always realize where their talents lie. It can take significant effort to identify the right fit but the better we understand the principle and work to apply it the better results we will have.

Focus annual review process on building talent

Before moving to consulting, I remember well year after year the large corporate annual review process. It would note the positive accomplishments but would also review a full list of all the different skills and abilities an employee could have. Ultimately, in my own experience, the focus was often on the areas where skills were lacking. This cycle of focusing on our weaknesses while noting strengths in passing made for a discouraging cycle everyone dreaded.

While recognizing there are certain baseline professional skills required across the board and noting the importance of identifying and dealing with essential deficiencies, it is not reasonable to expect our team members to excel at everything. We all have different talents and abilities and flourish as a team best when we are allowed to contribute in alignment with our strengths. Remembering this in the annual review process works best when we reward and encourage team members based on how they have applied their talents instead of focusing primarily on where they may struggle.

In US football, when a coach or trainer works with the quarterbacks, they will focus on the key skills required for that position rather than noting that their kicking skills are limited and setting up remedial kicking training. In football that would be laughable but regrettably, in my own experience prior to consulting, I had seen the annual review process become the equivalent.

Using the annual review efficiently can help you identify your team members’ strengths which enables you to better understand their talents and place them in the right roles and assignments for success. By focusing on the strengths, it also becomes more encouraging and helps build the team members instead of weighing them down with the impossibility of trying to excel at every aspect of their professional development.

Focus on strengths not weakness

Following from the annual review where shortcomings are noted but strengths emphasized, it is important to focus training and mentoring throughout the year in the same alignment. It has been demonstrated that people develop and improve on their weaknesses better when focusing on strengths rather than focusing directly on weaknesses. In sports, trainers have noted that focusing on someone’s strengths has seen greater improvement in their weaker areas of the game than other team members who were focusing directly on improving their weaknesses. Further, focusing on strengths also provides improvement on strengths, the key skills and abilities that are most likely to support the bottom line.

This approach has not only shown better skills improvement but encourages higher morale as people are generally much happier working on the areas where they have confidence and shine over having to continually face the aspects of their sport or job that are hardest for them.

This is not to say that we ignore or do not address shortcomings or performance issues especially if they impact essential job requirements, but it recommends making the remediation effort associated with the aptitude of the individual. If someone is great at sales but struggles with some of the administrative aspects, focusing directly on administrative expertise will be difficult and unpleasant. If they cannot avoid it altogether, they will do the minimum required to complete any administrative skills training. However, if there is sales training that can help them reach the next level of sales expertise but also includes some aspects of how the administrative tracking can support the sales efforts, they are more likely to embrace that training opportunity. The likely outcome is that they improve not only their key sales skills but also improve on the supporting administrative skills.

Spend more time with your top performers

Initially spending more time with top performers can sound counter intuitive. Aren’t the team members who are struggling the ones who need your time and attention? Although you do need to allocate time with all team members, the stronger team members are the ones who have the most potential to contribute to the bottom line and the ones you want to make sure you keep thoroughly engaged.

In sports, you should spend more time focusing on a star player than on reserve players. In opera the lead singers are given much more attention in rehearsal than a chorus member. In sports and entertainment this focus on the top performers seems natural, but we sometimes lose sight of how this principle applies to business when we are focusing our team management and training efforts. If we have talented staff that have shown the desire and willingness to extend the hard work and effort to progress, we should allocate more of our time and training towards them and support them in their career fulfillment and progress. Neglecting our top performers to focus fully on remediation with the struggling team members keeps us from helping those who can contribute most to our bottom line. It may even lead to top performers looking elsewhere for the support to progress their careers.

Building and retaining talent in practice

Applying these principles through focusing annual review and training efforts to encourage and build our team members’ talents not only fosters and retains the important talent in our ranks but can help unleash their greater potential. If we fail to take these steps, we at a minimum hamper our talent but also may risk losing it as they look elsewhere. Recognizing how to best engage and foster our team members’ talents requires continual effort to align them with the right opportunities to contribute and grow but is well worth the investment and can unleash enormous potential.

In high school, one of my daughters took a choir trip to Washington DC and based on their teacher’s experience singing with the Washington National Opera they were able to meet Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg (as their teacher had been a guest performer at her birthday party a few years before). Justice Ginsberg shared with the group that she had aspirations in her youth to sing opera professionally, but she did not have the talent for it. Fortunately, she recognized this and applied herself to her legal career where she was able to benefit many and accomplish much. In talking about this, Ruth Bader Ginsberg repeated to my daughter and her choir: “not everyone can sing opera.”