At a past client, I was tasked with traveling the country to their various regional offices, most located in rural areas and, as one might expect, staffed with more pragmatically oriented people than those in distant headquarters.
At one location, I discovered a woman who had built all manner of fairly complex Excel spreadsheets to do everything from making up for shortcomings in corporate systems, to consolidating and tracking information to make data entry easier. Her energy was high and her outlook positive, despite a barrage of new systems whose implementation had gone rather poorly.
Her appetite for learning was insatiable, and she was amazingly grateful when I spent a few minutes showing her some Excel tricks, and apologetic about her limited knowledge. She mentioned that she'd asked for approval to purchase an "Excel for Dummies"-type book, but that her request had been denied and the best resource she had was a copy from the local library, a version prior to the rather significant changes to the Excel user interface.
After returning to my office, I sprung for a copy of a well-regarded Excel book and had Amazon ship it to her office. A few days later our team received a warm email, and she was truly touched and mentioned already learning some new tricks to make her job easier, all for less than 30 bucks.
The moral of this story is not that everyone needs a book about Excel, or that draconian purchasing and procurement policies can often be unhelpful, but that there is likely a great deal of potential in your employee pool that's trapped behind an inane roadblock.
In this case, that roadblock was a policy or uncaring manager who wouldn't spend the a few dollars to allow an employee to be more productive, and generate a massive return on that investment. In other cases, it might be an adept technician unhappily trapped in a management role since it's the only way to advance, or a young upstart whose ideas and enthusiasm are browbeaten into submission by "that will never work here" or "you're too new to understand."
Finding hidden talent
Hidden talent exists in all levels of most organizations. The Excel-wielding person I mentioned earlier was the equivalent of an admin. While certainly not ready for CEO, she clearly was capable of far more than answering phones and data entry. Look for people whose name is frequently attached to problem solving. The third or fourth time you hear "Oh, Mike came up with this" it's probably worth finding Mike and determining how to capitalize on his talent and maintain his motivation.
It need not cost a dime
When managers consider how to develop their people, in large organizations that train of thought quickly turns to training, HR initiatives, incentive packages, and other costly ventures. However, there are myriad ways to move your talented individuals forward. A few minutes of an executive's time to recognize the individual and hear their thoughts can literally change someone's career, just as removing procedural roadblocks can increase that person's output and productivity.
Even independent research can help unlock hidden talent, provide business benefit, and be essentially cost-free. A CIO I worked with allowed high-performing employees to experiment with integrating mobile devices with corporate services, then presenting their findings. The employees spent time that would have likely been lost to useless web trolling with activities they perceived as fun, and also developed their executive presentation skills while informing company leadership.
Hidden talent is the ultimate organizational resource. It's already present in your organization, doesn't require any procurement, and can be exploited without incurring any significant cost increase. You're frankly doing your company and your team a disservice by letting this resource languish behind administrivia, ignorance, or sheer managerial laziness.
Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent over a decade providing strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow his blog at www.itbswatch.com. All opinions are his and may not represent those of his employer.