Sunday, November 8, 2009

Finding Your Team's Hidden Abilities

I'm a student of martial arts.  I study a variety of karate known as kempo. For me, martial arts is unsurpassed in its ability to build and support the qualities of leadership, self-reliance, initiative, persistence, and strategic thinking, that I seek to reinforce in myself. And, oh yes, let's not forget humility, which is especially relevant in my case, as I tend to get my butt kicked at least once a week.

Today I was watching a mixed martial arts match on TV.  I figured I knew how it was going to turn out:  one of the fighters was gigantic, towering over his opponent and enjoying about an 8-inch reach advantage.  Neither fighter was very experienced, and the match figured to end with the bigger dude, Marcus "Big Baby" Jones, beating the heck out of his opponent with his enormous fists.

But that's not what happened.  Yes, Jones won, and won convincingly.  But, to my utter surprise, he won with finesse, rather than power, trapping his opponent in a painful submission known as an arm bar. True, submission techniques aren't solely the province of small, wiry fighters; still, they do require some skill and experience, and I sure didn't expect to see that kind of grappling ability in former NFL player Jones.

Part of the lesson here, of course, is not to judge a book by its cover.  But there's more to it.  It wasn't just Jones' stature, broad shoulders, bulging biceps, and absurdly large hands that led to my incorrect prediction; after all, his opponent wasn't exactly built like a chimney sweep either.  But I'd watched both opponents train; I knew a bit about their backgrounds.  At one point prior to the fight, Jones said he was going to tear off his opponent's arm and hit him with it.  All in all, I felt safe in concluding I was about to see a beat-down.

Instead, I was treated to an exercise in strategy and timing I'd never anticipated. I thought I had a reasonable picture of Jones the fighter, but in reality, I'd missed his hidden abilities. Of course, people can surprise you - even people you think you know pretty well, like the members of your team. I've had a few opportunities to build teams from scratch, but most of the time, I take over an existing group.  That means that individuals on the team have spent time - perhaps a long time - in their respective roles.

These roles form the context in which I get to know them.  In the early stages of our relationship, I learn their personalities, as well as their skills and work habits. But it's easy to forget that I'm looking at them through a narrow window bounded by their job descriptions, that there's much more to each person than is evident to me in my usual interactions with them.

The best way to find the buried nuggets of talent on your team is simply to dedicate a portion of your busy schedule to meet and speak with each of them individually.  I've mentioned before that I'm surprised to see how infrequently senior leaders are willing to make this simple, though admittedly time-consuming, effort.

In hard times, it's more important than ever that leaders take the time to see sides of their employees that they might otherwise have missed.  Automation, outsourcing, and the poor economic climate have formed the perfect storm, robbing workers of opportunities and, in many cases, their livelihoods.  Knowing your team member's hidden talents may mean the difference between finding her a new role or having to let her go.

Keeping your employees employed is noble and appropriate, but it's not the only advantage of taking a closer look.  The more you know of your team's hidden abilities, the broader your range of responses can be when faced with new business challenges. That makes you, and your team, more valuable to your enterprise.  And that is a good place to be, whatever the state of the economy.

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