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The Search for Hidden Talent Treasures

Look for the overlooked skill sets and expertise pools in your organization.

Organizations looking for outside talent pay an extraordinary amount of attention to resumes. HR pores over job descriptions looking for the right words to craft compelling recruitments ads. Applicants fret as they hone their cover letters to reflect what they think the company wants. Hiring managers scour applicants’ CVs for indicators of the right skills and experience. And, too often, this is all forgotten once the hire is made.

Once people are inside, it’s almost as if some kind of reset button is pressed: The details of their backgrounds seem to get dumped onto a far-off slag heap, and they become known only for what they do at the new organization. I call this phenomenon resumenesia — a malady causing massive cases of forgetfulness about past experiences that may be the key to unlocking extra value in your organization’s existing talent pool.

Here’s a personal example: Several years ago, I was working as creative director at a publishing company that decided to try its hand at holding a conference. When I discovered the company’s leaders were about to sign a six-figure contract with an outside consultant to produce the event, I asked for a few days to come back with an alternative proposal. I had never produced a conference, but I had helped put on retail store openings, product launches, concerts, and other large-scale events prior to joining this company. When I started asking around, I was quickly able to put together an internal team with sufficient experience and expertise to handle the conference, and because the members of this ad hoc team knew the internal processes and culture, we were able to ramp up our plans for the conference rapidly and efficiency. The team members also were acquainted with each other, resulting in a jump start in credibility and trust that simply would not have been possible with someone from the outside. The conference went so well that conferences became an independent line of the company’s business, which I led for several years.

Of course, my company was happy to have saved the consulting fee. But even more important, without my accidental discovery, the company would have had no clue that it already had the right in-house talent for this project. The person who best knew my background was the manager who’d hired me, and she had left the company. The natural impulse for the person who’d thought up the conference was to look outside because there was no existing box on our org chart that said conference production. And, even if it had crossed his mind to look internally, there was no easy way to get the relevant information.

Your employees are likely facing similar difficulties. Who in your company speaks German? Who has worked in Southeast Asia? Which people have experience in retail or manufacturing that’s being ignored? Chances are that there is no systematic way to find out this information.

Companies with long-tenure cultures have an advantage in preventing resumenesia because internal experience will be remembered and celebrated, at least for those who are promoted. When Jane is named vice president of business development, you likely will hear that she started in customer service, did a stint in quality assurance, and then helped lead the firm’s entry into Eastern Europe before coming back to headquarters in her new role. Others in the firm probably got the chance to know Jane as she moved through her various assignments. They may have served together on cross-functional teams on which a range of strengths (and weaknesses) were revealed.

But even at such companies, getting the full benefit from an employee’s experiences is left to chance if the information isn’t captured in a systematic and easily accessible way. And for an outside hire, that rich knowledge base would simply be a blur of past accomplishments — especially as fewer and fewer people spend a career at a single company, and the probability of losing the details of talent assets rises as people move from firm to firm.

Getting the full benefit from an employee’s experiences is often left to chance.

So what can your organization do to prevent resumenesia?

·       Build and propagate internal talent profiles. One global firm I’ve worked with has a robust, searchable internal social network where employees can post their experience, skills, and interests. LinkedIn has recently launched its Lookup feature, which lets companies use the popular professional network in much the same way. Be sure to reward people for completing their profiles and keeping them up to date. Celebrate unconventional collaboration that results from internal talent discovery.

·       Make it easy for ad hoc teams to pilot new ideas. A manufacturing company I’ve spent time with over the years regularly gives employees time and seed funding for trial initiatives. They were able to build a profitable customer base made up of small businesses in one ethnic community because a group of their employees with that same background thought that these businesses held unrealized potential for the company’s products. They didn’t hire a consultant — interested people stepped forward to assemble a team that put together a trade show booth and went out to meet the small-business owners face to face. This is a variation on an idea proposed many years ago by management guru Gary Hamel: Let talent migrate to the projects they find most compelling as a way to tap into not only the skills but also the insights of employees that might not otherwise surface through a traditional funding approval process.

·       Create intentional bump-and-connect opportunities. When people are seen in only one role or confined to a functional silo, knowledge about them is naturally limited. One national wholesaler I’ve researched decentralized its charitable initiatives and shifted them from check writing to more hands-on activities. A side benefit is that senior managers spend time with frontline employees and supervisors in a non-hierarchical setting in which they really get to know each other. At another company, one rule is that business units must have their meetings on a floor other than the one where they have their offices. This forced movement results in spontaneous stairway conversations that enhance cross-unit information flow.

Your organization works hard to attract the best talent. Don’t let resumenesia get in the way of letting everyone contribute all that they can.

Eric McNulty

Eric J. McNulty is the associate director of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative. He is the coauthor of You're It: Crisis, Change, and How to Lead When It Matters Most (PublicAffairs, 2019). He writes frequently about leadership, change, and organizational culture.

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