Nurturing Natural Talent

High performance is about people in the workplace operating at exceptional levels and making big contributions to the results of the organization.

It reminds me of the fable about a group of forest creatures who decided to make some collective changes. They organized a school and agreed to adopt a curriculum of running, climbing, swimming, and flying. They decided that all animals should take all subjects.

The duck was an excellent swimmer, but very poor at running. Since he was a slow runner, he had to stay after school to practice and no longer focused on swimming. Indeed, his feet became so badly worn that soon he was only an average swimmer.

The rabbit started at the top of the class in running, but became overwhelmed when he had to expend so much effort trying to improve his swimming.

The squirrel, who was an excellent climber became frustrated in the flying class, where his teacher made him start from the ground up, instead of from the treetop down. He lost enthusiasm for all the activities including climbing.

The eagle could fly higher and longer than any of the others. However, in climbing the only way he could get to the top of the tree was to cheat – by flying. He was severely disciplined and subsequently stopped trying at anything.

In the end, not only did the animals fail to get the desired results, all their skills were now mediocre. What would have happened if they figured out how to utilize the skills, talents and abilities of each – using the best swimmer to meet the swimming challenges, the best climber for the climbing challenges?

This fable applies to organizations looking to achieve enhanced results. When we envision high performance we often think that talent is innate, and that talented people will succeed without any extra effort. But in reality people need to be coached and their talents must be nurtured.

There are three key lessons about high performance:

Organizations would do well to leverage individual strengths instead of trying to get great swimmers to become fast runners.

Part of a leader’s role is to ensure that people are leveraging their strengths. Getting to know people is key to understanding their individual strengths, talents, and abilities. That doesn’t mean that people only work on things they like and are good at. Like the rabbit, which will never excel at swimming, people can develop additional skills, but are never going to excel in all areas. Sometimes top sales people make the worst sales managers. Excellent litigation lawyers are not necessarily good at selling their services and fail to meet their quotas. Don’t make the mistake of trying to ensure that everyone develops the same skill sets without first ensuring that there is both the ability to succeed, and the desire to change.

Untended natural talent can be lost.

Loss of focus cost the duck his ability to swim well. Often our best performers are left to their own devices, notably, when they have been newly promoted. We assume their success in one area will automatically transfer to the next job. Managers often spend their valuable time on poor performers, instead of focusing on their best people and helping them to develop their leadership potential. Once lost, it is hard to rekindle enthusiasm for a position or a company. Performance suffers or talent walks out the door. Either way it has a negative impact on the organization.

A good working environment and constructive feedback are essential.

Coaching is a big part of this process. It creates an environment that encourages open and honest discussion about performance. Coaching provides a regular opportunity to celebrate successes and to set goals. The squirrel would probably have performed better with this type of encouragement. High performers are a talent pool for the future leaders of an organization. Coaching provides them with focused time to discuss future career opportunities.

Learn from the animal school fable. For greatest success match the coaching and teaching to the skill level of the individual. The seed of ability is essential and must be combined with a genuine desire to grow. High performance people are a big asset, who should be nurtured to be the best they can be. Building the base of high performers is a value-added activity that should be top priority for all leaders.

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March 1, 2007

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