This post could be considered a tribute of sorts to the perennial Job Description hanger-on “Other Duties as Assigned”. When your company is growing and you need to expand the number of people and the number of roles, it can be a challenge to keep up with your job description documentation. It’s important, because it lays out the prerequisites and competencies needed for a job. Yours might also include performance standards, like “able to lift 50 pounds”. But often the job descriptions aren’t truly up to date with the work your team is actually doing. That little “Other Duties as Assigned” and other open spaces you leave in the job description can help you unleash hidden talents on your team.

Why care about hidden talents?

You know what your business needs, right? Well maybe you don’t. Not completely, or not all of the time. Sometimes when productivity is all elbows and knees at 60 miles per hour you’re faced with a sudden skid to a halt and a conundrum. What just happened, and what do we do now? You didn’t plan for this, and it’s not on anyone’s job description. No worries, though. Just because the thing you need isn’t on anyone’s job description doesn’t mean that it’s not already there in your company.

Convene the team, share the situation, ask for input, then wait. Allow some moments of silence and restrain yourself from answering your own question. It helps if you are huddling by a flip chart tablet or a white board. As answers start to be tossed out, document them. Notice who is contributing what, and watch their faces for smiles or signs of light in the eyes. When you see that attentiveness and light you’re seeing engagement. You’re seeing people calling on their brains and their talents. And you might discover that you have access to insights you never knew you had.

The not-so-hidden talents

You might know about some of the special aptitudes on your team already – the ones that go beyond the boundaries of the job description. Sam has excellent analytical ability and Morgan knows how to finesse through even the most delicate interpersonal situations. If you are observing as a leader – and that means being out and among your team rather than camping out inside your own head – you will see them. George knows how to improvise and solve problems with his hands. Jane can readily transfer concepts from one situation to another, and she sees how things fit together. If your eyes and ears are open these talents are observable in action. If you are attentive, you might even notice an aptitude before they do. And when you put it to work, you engage them. You can also – wait for it – ASK your team members when you are one on one what their interests are, and how they would like to stretch themselves.

Even some of the behavioral traits that drive you a little bit crazy can be talents that are strengths in the right context. Perhaps Joe is particularly adept at identifying risks, often played out in a meeting as “Why we can’t do that”. Rather than see Joe’s observations as negative, consider structuring projects or roles for him where his particular types of perceptions add value. For instance, Joe can help a project team plan for contingencies by anticipating problems.

How to bring talents out of the woodwork

You are more than just your job title, and the same goes for each of your team members. They are more than their job descriptions. They have more value to offer the company than you are currently deriving. They likely are not holding their talents back on purpose – they are just not sure they are allowed to be themselves. Or they don’t realize that something that comes naturally to them is a big, difficult deal to someone else.

  • Train them well, but leave them some room to accomplish the results you need by their own means (by using their unique talents).
  • Take a pause before putting your own two cents into the conversation, giving team members a chance to contribute.
  • Involve them in conversations, projects, and problem solving that they would not normally be involved in. Sometimes the best answers come after someone asks the most basic questions. and their value will grow as their perspective broadens.
  • Encourage the use of nontraditional methods, and ask about the thought process that led them to choose something new and different.
  • Make room for making mistakes – not the same one over and over, but for the experiments that help people learn. Not all tests work, but tests are important to improvement and discovery.

In the short-term it might cost you a bit to make the space for talent discovery and talent development. But if you invest in discovering and developing the talents in your company, its contribution to business value and sustainability return your investment many times over.