How to Successfully Turn Raw Talent into Functional Strength

Talent. It has become an extremely hot topic in business. Talent acquisition and retention are high on every leader’s agenda. We are all striving to find the best in an obviously shrinking pool.

But, if we stop with the idea of finding and keeping talented people we will fall short of what is ultimately needed. I once read in a leadership blog that research by K. Anders Ericsson and colleagues concludes that it is deliberate practice that produces great performers, not simply raw talent.Michael Jordan is arguably the greatest basketball player of all time. We Chicago Bulls fans have no doubt. Years ago I regularly heard sports talk-show hosts and basketball analysts discussing who would be the next Michael Jordan. Would it be Kobe or LeBron? As a leader, the real question for me was, “What made Jordan so great?”

Michael had talent. But, that isn’t what made him the greatest. There are plenty of professional athletes who have amazing raw talent, but their careers fall far short of what they could have been because of the lack of the essential ingredients – hard work and deliberate practice. There is no way that MJ would have reached the pinnacle that he did without the relentless effort he put into transforming his talents into strengths.

Equally as critical was that MJ spent the majority of his career focusing on doing what he naturally did well. Many of you remember his failed attempt at professional baseball. The lesson to all of us is to stay focused on our natural talents.


If those you are leading succeed, you succeed. It’s that simple. Just ask Phil Jackson (9 NBA titles as a coach). The best way to make that happen is to focus on turning people’s’ natural talents into functional strengths. In your daily conversations and in the responsibilities that you give them, make sure you concentrate on what they do well. Don’t take the path of most resistance.

Here are some simple steps to follow:

1. Start by helping them identify their talents. There are a number of reliable and valid assessments available to help you do this. A few well-known ones are the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), StrengthsFinder, and DiSC. Assessments help in creating self-awareness, which is one of the most important elements in personal growth and change. Just a little bit of good coaching or consulting can make all the difference with this step.

2. Create opportunities for them to deliberately practice. There are two important elements to this. First, people need a high degree of repetition to fully transform their raw talents into functional strengths. Second, they need to practice with an appropriate level of quality and precision. My old basketball coach was right when he used to say, “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.”

3. Ensure they are in the proper role. According to Gallup’s management research, being intentional about getting people’s roles aligned with their talents is extremely important to creating long-term engagement in your team members. Therefore, make sure your best people are, as Jim Collins says in Good to Great, “in the right seat on the bus.” This will allow them to maximize their effectiveness.

4. Help them understand how to leverage their strengths to succeed. Our natural talents are like fuel. They propel us forward. However, the person you are working with may need some assistance in understanding how to connect their talent to a functional skill.

For example, one of my talents from the StrengthsFinder assessment is Discipline. It means that I bring order and structure to everything I do. I have learned how to leverage that innate ability in designing processes and systems that enable me to be the most efficient I can be.

I have another individual whom I have worked with who is an ENTP (from the MBTI). ENTP’s are typically great initiators or project starters. However, they are notorious for not being very effective at follow-through and implementation. I was able to help him understand the importance of having strong administrators on his team to whom he could delegate the execution of tasks. This enabled him to focus on problem solving and initiating the right projects for the organization.

5. Talk with them about it regularly. There is a very simple, yet powerful principle at work in human relationships. What gets talked about is what gets done. The reason? With the volume and speed of information in today’s global, connected world, it is very easy to get distracted.

Help them stay on track, by intentionally discussing their development on a regular basis. Keep it in front of them and make it an integral part of your conversation. This will help them to realize how important it is and provide focus.

Ongoing, deliberate practice is a significant part of what separates great performers from those who remain in mediocrity. JOE DENNER


A quick word about weaknesses. The only time I encourage leaders to work on a team member’s weakness is when it is inhibiting their ability to meet expectations, or if it is negatively affecting the team’s performance. However, don’t try to turn the weakness into a strength. Invest the minimum effort to neutralize the weakness and keep the majority of your efforts centered on enhancing their strengths.

Do this consistently, concentrating first on those who are your best. Too often leaders get focused on the weakest team members. The return on your investment from working with high potential team members will be very high. Additionally, the amount of effort to take them from good to great will be far less than to take your weaker team members from fair to good. Eventually you will have a very strong, committed team that will perform at a consistently high level.

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