Talent for the task

Dr Ivan Joseph
November 2, 2020

When I was a young student life professional, I served with four of my favorite colleagues managing the residence halls. We were responsible for the living conditions, the educational programming and managing the conduct in the buildings. As you can imagine, when you put several hundred teenagers together for the first time away from home, the job can be A LOT.

Each of us brought our own diverse skills and talents to the job, and in the true sense of fairness, we would rotate through the different tasks that the job required to make sure there was balance for all. Those tasks would vary from scheduling to presenting to discipline to community engagement to program development and, so forth.


As with most things in life, some of us would shine at some tasks over others. It was a significant point of stress for all of us to perform the tasks that we were not particularly good at or drawn to. I can remember distinctly laboring for hours upon hours trying to get the duty schedule right for the students who managed the front desks controlling visitation hours. Trying to get the roster of students to have the equal number of hours, equal number of weekend shifts, equal number of overnights to balance the load was like splitting the atom to me. It was painstakingly difficult. No matter how hard I tried, I never got it quite right. All this task did was reinforce a belief I had that I was not administratively sound, which deflated my self-confidence.


I had an epiphany one day watching my colleague present on an educational topic in one of our training sessions. My colleague was a nervous wreck. He had perspired through his t-shirt and his sweater. There was a pool underneath him. He never made eye contact. It was dull and boring. He had lost the audience. His inability to make the presentation fun and up-tempo lost the room. The students had missed the important lessons he had prepared to teach. This was the moment I had an epiphany and recognized the power of Talent for the Task.


I brought the front-desk schedule to my colleague with the offer to barter. Would he consider taking on my share of scheduling and, in return, I would take on his share of presentations? He leapt at the opportunity. His brain and his talents were suited to that detailed, specific type of work. The same type I tried hard at and couldn’t master. While for me, I could give presentations with one eye open. They did not produce an ounce of stress for me. I was more than happy for this trade. As happy as both of us were, it was truly our co-workers and students who received the biggest benefit because our schedules were free of errors and our presentations were lively and engaging. Everyone’s experience was better for us moving towards our talents. The overall organization benefited.

Some may criticize this message by saying, “If we do this, how will we get better at things we aren’t naturally good at?” or “How will we improve our skills?” I will take that as a fair criticism.

However, I would like to suggest a counterpoint:

If I take something that is not a strength – that is a pain point – and put 50 hours of attention to it, no doubt I will improve. That significant weakness may in fact become a skill that I can do and manage. I may be, in fact, as good as most people in it after a great deal of practice and effort. But, if I take those same hours, attention to detail and practice to hone the skill I am naturally above average in, I will become exceptional at that. It is in the exceptional skills and actions that recognition and promotion occur – not in the good as everyone else performances.

This is an important piece about how we increase diversity of skills across our teams and make sure we position our team members in the best place that sets them up for success.

Once I was leading an organization when there was a case presented to me to ‘performance manage out’ an individual who was making many organizational errors. Contracts weren’t filled out the right way. Rooms were being double-booked. Customer calls weren’t always being returned in a timely fashion. This person was really struggling with a certain aspect of her work, but at the same time we were hitting record revenue growth. This profit generation was because of her ability to engage the customer, to meet their needs and market our facilities. The case was being presented to me that it was time to let this person go.

I needed to step back and show my workers the whole picture – to create a balance sheet that showed the strengths, as well as, the challenges for this employee. Before I was willing to move towards performance management, I wanted to see if the strengths were worth us finding a way to stay the course. It was clear to me that there were two distinct tasks to his job that required two skill sets. The employee’s strength was so off the charts (and this is key) in revenue generation, it was worth taking a look at positioning this role in a different way that would unburden her from trying to carry the administrative load. With the hiring of a clerical position to support this role, employee morale rose and revenue quadrupled in a nine-month period. The organization flourished, and the talented employee was retained. The simple organizational shift of moving an individual towards her strengths instead of forcing her to dwell on her weakness allowed me to retain a high performer AND exceed the goals and objectives of the organization.

We are often tempted to feel like we need to master everything. The phrase: ‘Jack of all trades, master of none,’ comes to mind. Take a page from a favorite movie of mine called Bend it like Beckham. David Beckham, as many of you may know, is a famous soccer player who played for his national team. He was average in many of the skills of a soccer player – an average runner, an average passer, but he was exceptional in his ability to bend a ball around his opposition. Who has not heard, ‘Bend it like Beckham?’ David Beckham focused on his strengths, and that led him to have an exceptional career where he was recognized for excellence amongst his peers.

The next time you are lamenting what you are not good at, try to recall what you are above average at and choose to focus on making that skill or talent your exceptional strength. Gravitate towards a career or a role in your current career where that skill is utilized and will set you apart. This sets you up for excellence.

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