On Becoming a Talent Scout

On Becoming A Talent Scout

Tom Peters

A little contest was started in the office by the employees. One
of the managers walks through the coffee lounge, where contest
rules are displayed on the wall. When he observes the poster, he
does a doubletake. It’s a work of art — clever, great lettering,
first-rate line drawing. Who authorized the art department to
engage in such frivolity? The manager engages in a bit of
detective work and discovers that the “artist” is a person he has
walked past 100 (or more likely 1,000) times in the order-entry

His revelation leads him to dig a little further. Among the
25 or so “clericals” in this part of the office, the manager
unearths a weaver whose work has been displayed in a local
gallery, the leader of a barbershop quartet that won a state
championship two years ago, a skydiver, two deacons in local
churches, one city councilman in a nearby small community, a
first-rate actress in a local repertory theatre group, one
Brownie and one Cub Scout troop leader, and a person who has four
adopted refugee kids. There’s no other conclusion: This is a
talented bunch!

The above example is real. It happened to a colleague. And as he
should have, he told me the story shame facedly. Why? Because he
had ignored the extraordinary talent of the people around him.
Worse yet, he had (inadvertently to be sure) stomped out the
creative, albeit indirect, application of that talent to his

He had advanced numerous silly and demeaning rules, each a
sign of mistrust and contempt; he had even added to them from
time to time. He had snickered openly at the suggestion of a pay-
for-knowledge program that would cross-train these people in a
dozen jobs. He recalls his response to the suggestion: “A dozen
jobs? You’ve got to be kidding. They can barely do the one
they’re assigned right now.”

At extremely successful Chaparral Steel, President Gordon Forward
has achieved unparalleled productivity, by far the best in his
industry. His secret is turning every member of the nearly 1,000-
person Chaparral team into a valued and value-adding resource.
Here, for instance, he explains the role of the ordinarily lowly
night watchmen and guards: “It’s really amazing what people do
when you let them. … [N]ormally when you think of security
guards at four o’clock in the morning they’re doing everything
they can just to stay awake. Well, ours also enter data into our
computer — order entry, things like that. They put the day’s
quality results into the computer system each night. We upgraded
the job and made a very clear decision not to hire some sleepy
old guy to sit and stare at the factory gate all night. Our
guards are paramedics; they run the ambulance; they fill up the
fire extinguishers; they do the checks on the plant; now we’re
even considering some accounting functions.”

Or consider stellar Johnsonville Sausage Co. of Sheboygan Falls,
Wisconsin (which has increased its share of the Milwaukee area
sausage market from 7 percent to about 50 percent in the last few
years) and another steel maker, Worthington Industries of
Columbus, Ohio. Hourly workers at each company take extensive
economics training — balance sheets, profit and loss statements
order economics. The firms believe that each person needs to
know, is capable of knowing, and will contribute much more if
they have access to financial data and ability to manipulate it.
Because the companies see unlimited capability in each person are
motivated to offer such training. And the attitude and the
opportunity for training contribute to both firms’ shining
productivity and profitability.

Similar logic explains why I lost my cool at someone else last
week, a finance department member. He complained in most graphic
terms, about having seen workers openly goofing off in part of
one of his company’s plants. I heatedly replied, “When you walk
into a junior high school classroom and see erasers sailing
through the air and trash all over, what do you instinctively
think? Rotten kids or rotten teacher or rotten principal?” I said
I bet it’s the latter two. I then suggested the analogy holds in
the plant and the distribution center as well.

That is, when you see extra-long breaks and numerous signs of
physical and psychological disinterest, you should be
furious — at yourself and at management. I almost guarantee that
your staff consists of a collection of energetic, bright (even if
not formally educated) people — who are church, scout and
community leaders or artists or beekeepers. And
your/our/management’s unwillingness to see that talent, and or
reluctance to develop it for the firm’s use is the real

Why don’t you start to do a little snooping, and perform a
sort of talent study of your own? Then ask yourself, “Can they
handle this or that sophisticated training? Can they take on this
or that additional responsibility? Can they learn a dozen jobs?
Can they contribute fresh ideas daily?” I wager that your answer
will be “yes” this time. I further bet that you will be chagrined
at the talent you’ve let go to waste for so long. Your and your
company’s future does not depend on action by Washington
tomorrow, but on appreciating the talent and potential that
surrounds you today. Our nation’s future, in fact, depends on our
learning how to compete by adding value to every product and
service through labor’s limitless talent.

(c) 1987 TPG Communications.

All rights reserved.