Avoid urge to alter talent of employees

Question: I've just been promoted to manager of our company and need to be sure that I start off on the right track with all of the employees, many who have been here longer than I.

Are there things that I should do to start off on the right track?

Answer: If there's one area that separates great managers from merely competent ones, it's their ability to recognize talent and their adeptness at deploying it properly. The best managers not only know that talent is a precious gift, but that it's dangerous to fiddle with it.

When it comes to the delicate matter of talent, they appreciate that it's hard to change people, and it's a waste of time trying to change them. Don't waste time trying to "put in what was left out." Instead, try to draw out "what was left in."

Not every boss appreciated this; many want to mold the individual - and sometimes the entire organization - into a model of themselves. They believe that all of us have the same potential, if only we had the discipline to alter behavior and transform ourselves.

It's a false belief that a smart manager can somehow erase the flaws in people's essential nature and make them better. There is a fundamental misunderstanding of the difference between people's skills, knowledge and talents. They are not the same.

Skill is anything that can be taught and, through repetition, perfected. In tennis, a strong backhand or forehand is a skill, so is a consistent first serve. Through long hours of practice, skill can be improved.

Talent is something else. In football, it's blazing footwork, incredible eye-feet-body coordination. The ability of a quarterback to gauge where his receiver is going to be and deliver the pass to him on the run. These are genetic gifts. You can't teach them to people but you can guide them in using them.

The key to handling talent is this: Once you spot it in an employee, leave it alone. Your job as a manager is to employ it properly, not change it.

I've had salespeople with similar territories, education, skills and sales potential. They made approximately the same number of calls on customers and worked about the same number of days during the year. However, one had 50 percent moew sales at the end of the year. The difference? The enthusiasm for the job, people and life one had over the other.

Some managers would look at this and instantly use this outstanding employee as a benchmark for everyone else in the organization and prod the other employees into matching the productivity.

But that would be a waste of time. A manager can still impart the skills and knowledge that can be taught. But talent is different; if enthusiasm is a talent, you can't inject it into people who lack it.

Be grateful for the employees who have it. And the next time, hire someone like them with enthusiasm.

Bill Bryan is a counselor with the Service Corps of Retired Executives. SCORE offers counseling, workshops and seminars on small business operations. You can reach Bryan through SCORE, 515 N Court St. 815-962-0122, for information and appointments.

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