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Why a talents-based approach helps teams succeed

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The Rising Team Kit Amplifying Natural Talents covers:

  • the definition of talents (vs. skills and strengths) and why they matter for your team
  • how to help you identify and maximize each person on your team's natural talents
  • useful tips to continue harnessing your team’s talents to drive success

What is a talent?

To get started, let’s talk about the difference between a talent, a skill, and a strength:

a) Talents are innate abilities and skills are things we learn to do

Each of us has natural talents—the activities that give us energy and generally come easily to us. Talents are innate; they are often present from the time we are very young. Gallup, who has done global research in this area for decades explains, “Talent reflects how you're hard-wired [and] dictates your moment-by-moment reactions to your environment—there's an instinctiveness, an immediacy implied.”

We can think of natural talents as the activities we have likely always been good at, whereas “skills” are things we learn to be good at over time, but don’t always come as naturally to us. Again, according to Gallup, “Knowledge and skills imply learned behavior, actions that require more active cognitive processing.”


You may also hear references to “strengths'' at work, and according to Gallup, strengths are where we have both high talent and high skill. In this session, we’ll just be discussing talents—the activities that come most naturally to us—with the goal of helping our team identify and amplify their talents to keep them on the right side of this chart. While the upper right quadrant is ideal, the bottom right quadrant is okay too, especially for people earlier in their careers. When people are in roles that don’t leverage their natural talents (those on the left side of the chart), although they can be successful, especially with strong skills, they are often less happy and less productive.

A workplace example of a person on the lower right hand side of the chart is someone who has a natural talent for building/creating things and is well suited to be an engineer, but is new to a particular coding language. They are still in a zone of high talent and just need to come up to speed on a particular skill.

b) Working within our talents makes us happy and energized

It’s important to remember that identifying talents is not about highlighting whether we are good at something, but rather whether we enjoy it and it comes easily to us. It’s possible to be very good at things that are not our natural talents, but doing those activities tends to drain our energy. Those are the activities that are on the upper left of the chart. A key question to ask ourselves here is, “If I could choose any activity, would I want to spend hours doing this one?” If the answer is no, then those activities are low talent ones, even if you are great at them. People are happiest and most successful when they spend more time working on areas within their natural talents. While every job may require some activities outside our talents, it’s ideal to find roles where we can use our talents more often.

Why do talents matter?

So, the key question is...why does all of this matter? Here’s why:

a) Employees are more engaged when managers focus on talents

Gallup describes engaged employees as “those who are highly involved in, enthusiastic about, and committed to their work and workplace,” and according to their research engagement is low worldwide. Only about 33% of US employees and 15% of global employees are engaged at work. However, managers can make a big difference here. In fact Gallup says that 70% of the variance in employee engagement can be attributed to the quality of managers.

The great news is that managers who focus on helping people use their talents and strengths have a huge impact. According to Gallup, employees who can use their strengths at work are 6x more likely to be engaged at work. They also perform better and are less likely to leave their organizations.

And they found that when managers focus on a team member’s strengths, vs. their weaknesses or no feedback at all, the team member’s chances of being actively disengaged go down to one in one hundred.


b) Wellness improves when people use their strengths

Research also tells us that the more people can use their strengths to do what they do best, the better they feel. People who get to leverage their natural talents each day are less likely to report experiencing worry, stress, anger, sadness, or physical pain during the previous day, and more likely to report having ample energy, feeling well-rested, being happy, smiling or laughing a lot, learning something interesting, and being treated with respect. More than half (52%) of Americans who use their strengths for three hours a day or less are stressed, but this falls to 36% for those who use their strengths 10 hours per day or more.

c) Focusing on talents drives team success

The data shows that not only are individuals more engaged and successful when they get to focus on strengths, but teams and companies are also more successful when this happens. Gallup research shows that teams that focus on strengths every day have 12.5% greater productivity than teams that don’t, and that investing in and focusing on employees' talents leads to higher levels of performance, profitability, productivity, and greater earnings per share for businesses.

Marcus Buckingham, a leader in the strengths movement who used to work with Gallup on StrengthsFinder and then created the StandOut assessment, compares leveraging team member talents to leaders who play chess instead of checkers. He says, “I’ve found that while there are as many styles of management as there are managers, there is one quality that sets truly great managers apart from the rest: They discover what is unique about each person and then capitalize on it. Average managers play checkers, while great managers play chess. The difference? In checkers, all the pieces are uniform and move in the same way; they are interchangeable. You need to plan and coordinate their movements, certainly, but they all move at the same pace, on parallel paths. In chess, each type of piece moves in a different way, and you can’t play if you don’t know how each piece moves. More importantly, you won’t win if you don’t think carefully about how you move the pieces. Great managers know and value the unique abilities and even the eccentricities of their employees, and they learn how best to integrate them into a coordinated plan of attack.”

There are a few reasons why utilizing each person’s talents helps the team:

  • It saves time: People are faster and more effective at their own work when they do things that come more easily to them.
  • It makes each person more accountable: When people know they are being called on based on a specific talent, it makes them want to take ownership and show they can deliver in that area.
  • It builds a stronger sense of team: When people understand each other’s talents and rely on each other to take action in those areas, it creates a sense of interdependence and connectedness because people realize they need each other to succeed.

Does this mean I should ignore weaknesses or poor performance?

Of course not. Focusing on someone’s natural talent doesn’t mean we should lower our expectations as leaders. It’s important to still set clear goals and expectations, let people know if they are falling short of those goals, and help support people to meet the expectations that are set in our organizations. The concept here is that by helping people spend more of their time in areas that align with their natural talents, they are more likely to be successful in meeting the expectations we set, since those are areas that come easily to them and that they enjoy. Often when performance is an issue, it means that someone’s role may be demanding too much work outside of their natural talents.

The research suggests we should spend most of our time further developing the areas where we have natural talent rather than trying to shore up those where we don't. As an example, imagine you were a natural at sprinting and ok at long-distance running, but it was much harder for you. It would lead to a better outcome to spend your time honing your sprinting skills to become even stronger, rather than trying to become a marathoner or split your time to try to get a bit better at both.

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