Skip to contentSkip to navigation

Uncovering the hidden talent on your staff

Worried about a skills gap? CEOs can try these strategies to find the employees who have what it takes to transform a business.

Not long ago, during a staff meeting, I watched a midlevel developer demonstrate to his colleagues a groundbreaking program he’d created. His managers had given him time and support to work on it, and he was clearly energized by what he’d made. To cap off his presentation, he guided everyone through an exercise in which they built a bot — in less than an hour.

PwC’s 22nd Annual Global CEO Survey shows that although CEOs are eager to implement innovations like this and transform their companies around new technologies, they’re worried that their current employees might not have the right skills. If you’re one of these executives, rest assured. There’s likely more talent within your company than you realize. Creative problem solvers probably already exist at every level of your organization, just like the developer whose bot-building tutorial I watched.

Although the bot developer had some technical expertise, I think the more important skills you should look for are the softer ones. You need people with an innovative disposition, who are open-minded and can move quickly. They need to be comfortable taking risks — and failing — and be highly collaborative.

These are the sort of people who will be eager to learn new things and capable of helping transform your company. So, how do you find the employees who have these inherent skills? Here are some steps you can take to uncover creativity and innovation within your staff.

You need people with an innovative disposition, who are open-minded and can move quickly. They need to be comfortable taking risks — and failing — and be highly collaborative.

Gamify innovation. A lot of companies are holding hackathons and other events that showcase innovation and make a contest out of it. A traditional tech company hackathon is something like a grown-up science fair, held over a few days, with teams working on developing new code or products or internal solutions in a competitive but collegial environment. This concept works across almost any industry and at companies of all sizes. The PwC Global Innovation Challenge invites employees all over the world to pitch ideas that satisfy one simple criterion: They solve a client problem.

Adopt agile approaches. Tech companies have led the way in fostering creativity by using an agile approach. Teams break projects down into sprints, focusing intensely on solving one specific problem at a time in a short, set period. This can lead to quick, outside-the-box thinking and risk-taking, and gives staff the ability to pivot to new ideas as short-term findings become clear. And, as with hackathons, these methods can be adapted to work in any industry. Experimenting with an agile approach — and not just in your IT department — can reveal which individuals on your staff have the right mind-set for innovation and are most likely to be able to learn and adapt with your company’s needs.

Create innovation incubators. Another way to find the innovators hiding in plain sight at your company is to create teams tasked specifically with coming up with new ideas. This responsibility isn’t in most employees’ job descriptions, so they might not be prioritizing it. But you can create formal innovation programs, or even tie a pilot to an existing project, to give employees the time and space they need to show what they’re capable of.

Keep diversity in mind. Bringing together people with diverse backgrounds, ages, and cultures can be energizing for everyone and unearth fresh thinking. I once worked with a team of four people from all over the world, of varying ages and cultures, and despite their apparent differences, they came together with creativity and focus more successfully than other, more homogenous teams. Their complementary skill sets and diverse perspectives were key to their accomplishments. If you expect innovation to come only from a certain place within your company or from certain types of people, you might be missing a gold mine of latent skills.

Embrace failure. When it comes to innovation, failure isn’t an option — it’s mission-critical. There are ways to screen current employees to find those who are comfortable with failing as part of the creative process. For instance, those who’ve been in the same job or at the same company for decades might be afraid to push outside their comfort zone. Ask them about the last time they came up short in a project but learned something significant.

As you think about your company’s future and the people you need to carry your vision forward and help guide it, you’ll probably end up wanting a mix of new hires and current employees. But knowing how to find and nurture existing skills in your organization should help relieve some of the anxiety you might be feeling about what you perceive to be a skills gap and a monumental hiring, reskilling, or up-skilling undertaking. Like the humble IT guy who developed the bot-creating software, just about any employee can be empowered to unleash hidden creativity. And that’s what will propel your company forward into an innovative future.

Vicki Huff Eckert

Vicki Huff Eckert is the West Region vice chair, PwC US and the global leader, New Ventures & Innovation. She is a partner with PwC US based in San Jose, Calif.

Get s+b's award-winning newsletter delivered to your inbox. Sign up No, thanks
Illustration of flying birds delivering information
Get the newsletter

Sign up now to get our top insights on business strategy and management trends, delivered straight to your inbox twice a week.