Developing Talent in the Small Business (The Leadership Series)

Big Red Car here.

The Boss is still in Steamboat Springs skiing and I am still in the driveway waiting for the old boy to get home.  I am wasting a lot talent just sitting here.

Which brings me to the subject of developing talent.

Nothing can take the place of talent

If you have been in business for more than an hour and a half, you know that any business is driven by the collective talents and judgement of its people from the guy at the top to the receptionist.

By the way, always remember that the receptionist is the customer facing front of your business.  When the receptionist meets a visitor or answers the phone, this is the first and lasting impression that your visitor or new customer is going to retain of your business.

You will have to pay a bit of tuition in life to learn the following:

Good judgment is the product of experience.
Experience comes from the exercise of bad judgement.

You cannot force feed experience though there is something to be said of getting some tuition assistance by learning from someone else’s experience particularly when it entails the exercise of bad judgment.

But what you can do is develop talent.  Talent — when coupled with good judgement — can be a powerful driver of your business.  How do you develop talent?

Talent spotting

The first thing is to think about talent as a commodity to be sought after and acquired in the hiring process.  Hire folks with talent as the prelude to developing that talent.  The new employee has to have some developable talent to begin the process.

Michael Jordan, a passable basketball talent, could not make heads or tails of a major league — AAA really — curveball.  Would you have hired him as a basketball player?  How about as a baseball player?  Trick question.

So how do you go about spotting talent?  You look and probe for it in the hiring process and assess the long-term growth capabilities of your prospects.  You have to sweat it but you don’t have to do any more than that.  It requires a bit of judgment.

The plan

Now you have hired the talent and must develop a plan for developing that talent?

You are going to have to put a stake in the ground and decide where you want this talent to carry your organization?  The Boss used to own lots of apartments and had a policy of only hiring college graduate, divorced, single moms.  His logic was pretty simple:

  • These ladies had to work.
  • These ladies were going to be stable because they had a child to support and take care of.
  • These ladies had heard more than a bit from the gentlemen and were not likely to be distracted too easily.
  • The Boss would give them — free of charge — as part of their compensation package the largest vacant apartment unit in the complex.   This meant that management would be on site 24/7.  The managers could never have afforded these large apartments and thus their jobs directly provided their creature comforts.
  • The Boss sent them to professional apartment schools resulting in their attaining professional credentials and receiving excellent training.
  • The Boss forced them to get a real estate license, a highly sought after skill, which also upgraded the intellectual basis for their performance.
  • The Boss arranged for peer-to-peer meetings — the wisdom of the campfire mechanism that great companies embrace — at which the best practices of the industry and market were cross fertilized, refined and communicated.

In the end, every Regional Manager was promoted from within from the talent pool which was developed by this process.

So, decide the ultimate position of your folks and develop their talent with a gentle handed but firm nudge along that road map.

The Boss has always said that one of the most gratifying elements of this part of his business career was seeing this pool of talent blossom and go on to great things even with other companies.

Coaxing a great performance

One element of developing talent is the opportunity to get a “great” performance from a particular employee.  Usually focused on a single talent or skill or pivot point.  Not a good performance, a great performance.

The Boss likes to think of that as coaxing a great performance from one of your folks.  The vision is that of a golf coach working with a student on the practice tee to teach them how to hit a nice low wind cheating draw.  One of the toughest shots for an amateur to learn to hit consistently.  The coach works with the student slowly, painstakingly and does not get there in a single lesson but each time makes a bit of progress.  Finally the student gets it, can hit it consistently and takes it out on the golf course and improves her scoring.  Well played!

This coaxing in business may be something like developing a talent for effective negotiations, a skill which is part science, part art and part patience.  The Boss used to send all of his folks to the Chester Karass Negotiating course — expensive but a great investment in developing talent.

Once the basis negotiating skills were developed then The Boss would work with that individual to inject them into the real business of the company.  Many an anecdote was chronicled when The Boss would send someone back to “remember to negotiate” — the first rule of negotiations.  Many a negotiator got “lucky — “give yourself a chance to get lucky”, the second rule of negotiations.


The Boss often is heard to say that the quarterback, coach, team owner relationship is what happens in successful businesses.

  • The quarterback is the employee who is trying to accomplish something of value for the team either individually or collectively.
  • The coach used to be a quarterback and knows the position but it is not now his position the team but some short time ago it might have been.
  • The team owner is the one responsible for hiring both the quarterback and the coach.

This could be a manager, a supervisor and a Chief Executive Officer.

Much like coaxing a great performance, coaching is intended to draw a better performance but is more focused on a particular transaction or singular action rather than coaxing a great performance which may be a bit more focused on a skill set.

In many ways, they are the same thing and it would not be unfair to lump them together.

Coaching is effectively applied by engaging an individual in a dialogue as to how they intend to do something that is just a bit in the future.  “So how do you intend to approach Mr Jones about buying that property?”

Modeling the dialogue and injecting some wisdom is the way coaching is used in reality.  It is always gratifying when the quarterback comes back and says:  “Damn, coach, that worked like magic.”

Coaching could be looked at like lending experience to a subordinate and not having to pay full tuition to boot.


Mentoring is the development of personal talent and the taking of a genuine interest in another individual as a conduit to share knowledge, experience, skills, information and life perspective in a manner which may at times appear to be a bit subjunctive to the direct interests of the business but which may yield incredible dividends in the long run.

Perhaps the apocryphal tale of the effectiveness of mentoring is the story of Dwight David Eisenhower’s development as a military officer and high level commander.  Most military history buffs know that Eisenhower missed World War I thereby diminishing his self-perceived chances of future high command.  He served under both MacArthur and Marshall.  He was great pals with Patton as field grade officers having disassembled and reassembled a tank at Fort Meade when they were both stationed there.

Most folks do not know that perhaps the most intellectually formative influence on Eisenhower was a Major General Fox Conner his commanding officer in Panama who had been Pershing’s Chief of Staff in World War I and who schooled Eisenhower for three years.  Conner was instrumental in getting Eisenhower admitted to the Command and General Staff College where Ike graduated #1.  Conner was a wealthy, intelligent, professional soldier who had sought Eisenhower’s assignment to his staff as Executive Officer.  Thus is the power of mentorship.

Mentoring is a powerful tool that requires the investment of time and energy from both sides.

Return on investment

So what is the return on investment for all of this talent development?  It is, in general, an improvement in the quality of the folks who are running your business, an improvement in the bottom line based upon the improved performance of specific skills or talents (as an example, negotiating better contracts and purchases through the development of negotiating talent and skill) and most importantly it is the right thing for you as an entrepreneur, leader and manager to do.

And, that my friends, is the truth.  Can you handle the truth?

But what the Hell do I know?  I’m just a Big Red Car!

Merry Christmas and be kind to yourselves, you deserve it.



2 thoughts on “Developing Talent in the Small Business (The Leadership Series)

    • .
      No, but I would have damn sure hired YOU! A great logical and effective road map to recovery.

      A well spun tale and a bit of holiday cheer all at the same time.

      Thanks for sharing and entertaining.

      Merry Christmas!

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