Everyone is Exceptional at Something

Insight categories: Perspective

Early in my career, I had an administrative assistant who did not work out, and I had to let her go. She did not have the organizational skills I was looking for, and she seemed bored with the day-to-day work of expense reports, travel planning, etc. While she was serving her two-week notice period, I happened to walk by her desk one day at lunchtime, where she was sketching an absolutely beautiful portrait. I asked if she was an artist and she said yes, that was her passion and she worked on it every spare minute. She showed me her work, and it was absolutely incredible.

While I didn’t say anything then, I felt ashamed because I realized that mentally I had been questioning her competency—and maybe even her worth as a human being—because of how well or poorly she did at the job I assigned her. I realized that she was in fact enormously skilled and hardworking—just not at the work I had assigned her to do. I now understood that she was indeed an amazing individual; she was simply in the wrong job. She showed me that everyone is exceptional at something.

I’ve tried to keep this principle in mind ever since. I've found that if I can discover a person's passion and align it with their work objectives, they will deliver extraordinary results. They will also take huge enjoyment in their work and regularly go above and beyond. In fact, the major challenge once you find someone’s “sweet spot” is to keep them from burning themselves out.

Discovering an Employee's Passion

Shortly after I joined a different company, it underwent a major re-organization. Unknown to me at the time, my hiring was part of the new organization plan. Part of my job was to build a new engineering group within the company, and my boss told me to focus my recruiting efforts on a specific division within the same company. When I was given a list of high-performers to go after, I asked my boss, “What if they’re not interested?” He responded, “Don’t worry, they will be.”

As he predicted, I was successful in recruiting my top candidates—in part because I made the work sound interesting, and in part because rumors were flying that the division was being shut down (which turned out to be true). One of my top recruits was an immigrant to the US who would be eligible for permanent residency provided he stayed employed by my new company for another 9 months. I was aware when he accepted my offer that he was almost certainly just grabbing a lifeline to insure his immigration status, and that he probably planned to leave as soon as he got it. He was an extremely talented engineer / architect, so I decided to take the gamble that I would be able to find work that he loved and keep him on-board.

In addition to giving this new recruit a broad and challenging role, my approach was to dangle special projects in front of him and see which ones he latched onto. In each case, I’d try to “sell” the project’s interesting aspects and benefits, but at the same time I made no effort to force him to take any of them on. After two or three attempts, I found one that he got really excited about. I could tell he was sold because he started talking about the project as his own idea, even though I had talked him into doing it in the first place.

I knew he was not trying to take credit for “my idea”—on the contrary, he had started thinking of it as his because he’d made the idea his own. In fact, he not only delivered on the original idea, but took it way past the point I had ever envisioned. He grew it until it turned into a completely new and very successful line of business for the company. All I can claim is that, as his boss, I was smart enough to ride the tornado and keep problems out of his way. It was a win for him, for me, and for our company. And, of course, he ended up staying way past the point where he got his green card.


Mapping Passion to Purpose

As a manager, it’s a bit of an art to figure out what people are exceptional at. I’ve learned that the secret is to keep trying until you find an area where they start driving you instead of vice-versa. It’s also a challenge to figure out what people will be exceptional at before you bring them onto your team—though I’ve gotten better and better at that over the years. The key is to not just listen to what a candidate says during an interview, but to observe what they really get excited about. Excitement can of course be faked, but by looking for congruence between their apparent emotions and past behavior, you can at least start to form a picture.

It’s also an art to stretch the lines of a job description so that the job fits the person, but the work still gets done. There’s an age-old dilemma in business as to whether you fit the job to the person, or the person to the job. My own view is that, like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, people are simply the “shape” they are. If you gather the right puzzle pieces together on your team, you can fit them together to cover your objectives. Your puzzle may not be a bunch of neat little rectangles within an organizational box, but your team will perform in a way that outstrips everyone’s expectations, including their own.

Software architect hero

Planning Your Own Path

Perhaps the final frontier is to figure out what you yourself are exceptional at. This comes totally naturally to some people, but it took me years to figure this out for myself. I realized over the years that—regardless of my official job role­—I’ve always ended up playing a key role in launching new products to market. I think people could just tell that I was excited about it and good at it, and my bosses either got out of the way or actively pushed me forward.

Unfortunately for me, most product companies spend the vast majority of their time in routine day-to-day implementation. Launching new products—or even bailing out problem ones—is relatively rare, even in large and very innovative companies. That’s why it was good fortune that I landed at a product development services company. Given that we work with a huge number of initial or major product releases, I found that I can now focus on the areas of software development I enjoy the most—the architecture, design, planning, and launch aspects.

It certainly does happen that some people are great at jobs they hate, while others are terrible doing things they love (singing on YouTube comes to mind). But I have found that people will naturally perform better when they do things that bring them energy and excitement—and as managers, it serves us best to help our teams find that sweet spot.

I sometimes wonder whether that admin I had to let go found a place where her artistic talent could flourish and make her a living. I truly hope so. I owe her a debt for teaching me that we all are exceptional at something. We just need to keep looking until we find it—or it finds us.




Dr. Jim Walsh


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