There's no shortage of advice about finding and attracting the best people to work for you. Or even about scouring your own organization to identify top performers within the ranks. My experience in a variety of frontline, supervisory, and other positions has taught me that important as both of those endeavors are, it's even more vital to look within individual employees for hidden strengths, especially at times when hiring and promotions are on hold. In short, plumb the depths of each person you currently manage to fish out the talents that lurk beneath. Here's what I've seen work:
1. Turn a compliment into an interview. When an employee does an excellent job, don't merely praise her. Pinpoint the strengths of her accomplishment and ask her how she did it -- in other words, to share her process. The interview will bring to consciousness -- both yours and hers -- insights that can be transferred to new tasks. Depending on the specifics, you might even ask her to give a presentation about her techniques or to train others in her methods.
2. Analyze how people think, not just what they do. Performance assessments rightly focus on the achievement of goals and other measurable markers of success. However, what's often behind such accomplishments is a way of thinking, particular to an individual, that made success possible. Describe those habits of mind in the employee's next evaluation. For example, "Lee always gathers all the relevant data, studies them carefully, and arrives at a solution that emerges from the facts rather than trying to fit them to a preconceived idea." Articulating this dimension of how Lee's mind works will help you -- and Lee -- identify the other projects that require his inductive talents. It'll also show him that you truly understand the value of his contributions.
3. Ask for the reasons behind preferences. Good managers know what their individual employees like to do (what tasks they enjoy, which projects motivate them). Great managers find out why someone has those preferences -- i.e., which project characteristics are the root sources of fulfillment. That kind of knowledge helps a manager strategically match an employee with a project, taking into account both the essence of the work and the essence of the person rather than just the category or domain where there appears to be a synergy. For example, Rosa might have enjoyed that customer-feedback project not because she likes working with surveys but because she has a strong affinity for the product that was being evaluated. Her next assignment should be related to that product, not a survey on a different product.
4. Inquire about people's dreams. "David, if you could be in an entirely different career, what would it be?" If David says he always wanted to be a translator, ask him if he'd like to give working with international clients a whirl. By getting a little taste of his dream in his current position, David is more likely to feel fulfilled than if he keeps treading water -- and less likely to get restless and head out to sea.Treating each employee as an ocean of talent allows you to find troves of precious gems. What hidden treasures have you discovered in your employees? And what jewels of your own have you brought to the surface because a manager cared enough to look for them?