Why Team Leaders Are the Key to Talent Activation

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Foosball tables and wellness programs may attract talent, but they won't activate it.

Foosball tables and wellness programs may attract talent, but they won't activate it. Whether you're in Silicon Valley or Kansas City, you are living in a startup world now. Every year, the U.S. sees about 4,000 new startups, even though only 15 of those will generate 95 percent of the economic returns, according to venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz. Despite the long odds, optimistic entrepreneurs continue breaking virtual ground on a daily basis.

This start-up economy has big implications for hiring and retention of talent. Many organizations try to differentiate themselves by offering increasingly extravagant perks. But fighting the perk war is a losing battle. Not because perks aren't desirable. Of course they are. They can be especially alluring when you are attracting talent to your organization. But perks are about the "we" — the whole organization, together. "We" is a great thing. It's important, but by definition, it's not differentiated. Investment in "we" is always a good thing. But where is the investment in "me"? What about differentiating each person and the unique strengths they have to offer?

When it comes to investing in your people, you have to do one thing: create an environment in which they feel like they have the opportunity to do their best work, every day. It's about talent activation: turning your people's natural talent into extraordinary performance.

Coaching Activates Talent

The most powerful, proven mechanism to activate talent is coaching. But we need to expand our structure of interpretation about coaching in two ways: first, about who coaching is for; and second, about what forms it can take.

In the corporate world, it used to be that coaching was leveraged to help a struggling executive. It might as well have been dubbed swim coaching, because it was aimed at people trying to keep their heads above water (or to keep from drowning others). But that attitude is changing, fast. In fact, coaching has its greatest impact not in remediating poor performance, but in retaining top talent. Google's Eric Schmidt went as far as to say that a board member telling him to get a coach — when he was already a highly successful CEO — was the best advice he ever received. As he put it, every famous athlete, every famous performer, has somebody who's a coach to give them perspective.

When you look outside the corporate world, it's easy to see how true that is. The most successful music superstars all have vocal coaches who put them through their paces and catch the subtle nuances that improve performance. It's inconceivable that a top athlete would go without a coach. Quite frankly, without a coach, it would be impossible even to be a top athlete. Some coaches are highly visible, pacing the sidelines and showing up at the parades. Phil Jackson famously led Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant to 11 NBA titles between them (it's worth noting that their total without the great coach was exactly zero). Other coaches are behind the scenes, known only to insiders who watch closely. Everyone knows Nadia Comăneci got perfect 10 scores at the Olympics in Montreal in 1976; few, however, can name Béla Károlyi, the coach who helped her elevate her performance to that height.

Obviously, the corporate world is a little different from world-class sports and pop music stardom. But only a little. We value performance just as much. We measure it just as obsessively as anyone in a ball cap with a whistle around their neck measures the performance of a team. And, just as in sports or in a band, while we need to address the team as a whole and coordinate its elements, performance happens one individual at a time. So why wouldn't we address it that way?

Team Leaders Are the Key

Coaching is the fastest way to activate talent. Providing 1:1 sessions with a professional, dedicated coach is undoubtedly one of the most powerful things an organization can do for its people.

But such sessions are not the only way to provide the benefits of coaching. This is the second way we need to expand our interpretation of coaching: the form it takes. The impact of coaching can be scaled when an organization empowers its team leaders with the coaching skills and tools they need to accelerate performance. Team leaders need to be empowered to do three things:

  1. Know their people — Understand what makes them tick and where they are at their best
  2. Focus their people — Ensure they understand what's expected of them and that their strengths are aligned with what they need to get done
  3. Engage their people — Create an environment within which people can do their best work

The coach approach to talent activation emphasizes that people's key areas of opportunity are their strengths, not their weaknesses. Every single person has unique gifts that can be leveraged to benefit both that individual and the team. The job of the team leader is to work with each team member to draw those gifts out and apply them to situational challenges and opportunities that will realize that individual's potential.

This personal, one-size-fits-one strengths-based approach makes as much sense in the corporate world as it does on a sports field. In both environments, team success is achieved by maximizing the impact of the individual.