Does your organization need to find, develop and leverage talent? Look through a different lens.
Consider recruiters screening thousands of job candidates during their careers. Only a few, if any, rise to the C-suite of a company. Imagine being able to identify such talent better than anyone else. Then consider Tony Lucadello, baseball’s greatest scout. Lucadello spotted 52 youngsters who eventually played Major League Baseball, including Hall-of-Famers Ferguson Jenkins and Mike Schmidt. It is an unsurpassed record. Lucadello did it surveying the ballfields of Ohio, Indiana and Michigan – not exactly the prime territory of California, Florida or Texas, where weather allows for year-round play (and evaluation).
His tactics varied from traditional scouts: he scrutinized non-action details, such as how players interacted with teammates and listened to coaches; he recalled observations made at practices, not just during games; he never contrasted one prospect with another, only each player’s own strengths against his efforts. He looked past flaws in performance to see the potential for young players to become big league talent. He did not sit behind home plate like most scouts but roamed the perimeter of yards, in large part to avoid hearing the opinions of others, relying instead on his own observations. (Lucadello’s exploits are chronicled in Mark Winegardner’s Prophet of the Sandlots: Journeys with a Major League Scout, New York: Prentice Hall Press, 1990.)
Lucadello contended that most scouts are ‘performance scouts’, unduly basing assessments on game accomplishments and inadequately considering the weaker competition faced by better players. In contrast, he called himself a ‘projector scout’, seeing the possibilities for players to improve when given access to the world’s best coaching, and anticipating how each might fare if eventually facing superior players.
The career of Tony Lucadello demonstrates that the oft-quoted contention of Nobel prize-winning scientist Albert Szent-Györgyi, “discovery is simply seeing what everyone else has seen – but thinking what no one else has thought”, may be in need of modification, if not outright correction.
Thinking what no one else has thought may simply require seeing what everyone has seen – and noticing the possibilities that no one else has really noticed.
Six looking glasses
Many onlookers are actually non-lookers, or unskilled in looking at anything other than one way. Lucadello demonstrates the six ways of looking outlined in my book, Look: A Practical Guide for Improving Your Observational Skills. These six looking glasses represent a portfolio of metaphorical lenses through which we can see the world differently.
- Binoculars looking occurs at a distance, surveying and scanning for the noteworthy, determining what may be worth further examination with other looking glasses. It usually involves physical movement to find vantage points from which to best observe the overall scene.
- Bifocals looking alternates two different views of any given situation or circumstance, comparing and contrasting various aspects of what’s being observed. It pairs obvious opposites – or not-so-obvious opposites. It’s a key skill in overcoming confirmation bias (seeing what one wants to see).
- Magnifying-glass looking spots things of particular significance, pinpointing important elements of a scene which may otherwise be missed. It puts all else aside in order to notice the new, the novel and the ‘out of place’ – or even the incredibly in-place.
- Microscope looking scrutinizes for more and greater details. Rather than zeroing in on one particular point, microscope looking seeks to identify yet more elements or factors worth examining. It can involve shifting objects to observe beneath and behind the readily apparent, or to look at the edges of some scene.
- Rose-coloured glasses looking goes past obvious flaws to see only the potential present in any scene, taking an improved view of what’s seen in order to uncover hidden opportunities. It’s not wishful thinking, but appreciative looking!
- Blindfold looking is recalling what was seen (or not seen) and how it was seen (or not). Fundamentally different from the other five looking glasses – thus metaphorically made of cloth – it sees what’s in the mind’s eye rather than what’s ‘out there’. Use of the other looking glasses can enhance this skill of re-seeing what has previously been seen.
Applications for improved observation
Peter Drucker pointed out that most innovation begins with observation – of consumer or customer behaviour, commerce in one’s own industry and others, or broader cultural discontinuities (Innovation and Entrepreneurship, 2006). Likewise, most successful identification, advancement, and placement of people in workplaces starts with observing the attitudes, behaviours and motivations of prospective and employed workers. Three particular areas stand out for any organization to improve how they see the possibilities of, and in, people. Each presents opportunities for better placing people in positions that best contribute value to the enterprise, and provide more fulfilling work for each person.
1 Looking to find talent
The greatest opportunity here lies in conducting auditions to replace, or at least augment, interviews. Interviews are conversations about past performance and risk inaccurate assessments of talent. At best, they can effectively eliminate candidates from consideration, based on a realization by the interviewer or interviewee that a position is not what suits the person’s abilities or interests. At worst, interviews yield a false read of capabilities: interviewing mainly reveals interviewing skills, not necessarily the ability to excel at the work being discussed.
On the other hand, auditions are events for observing how someone actually performs. Candidates are placed on a ‘bare stage’, stripped of the usual accoutrements and comforts of the workplace. As such, they often reveal a truer picture of candidates’ capabilities and provide a better understanding of their potential.
MGM conducts auditions for frontline casino and resort roles such as bellhop, cocktail waitress, cashier, and others. Thirty candidates are gathered at a time, divided into three groups, and put into pairs within each group. These pairs interview each other, then in three rounds, step forward two-by-two to introduce their respective partners to the larger group. Between rounds, the entire group is asked to learn a dance routine. In less than one hour (an average of two minutes per candidate) MGM determines who gets hired.
MGM’s observers at these auditions couldn’t care less about how well individuals dance or make introductions. They look instead for positive reactions to being asked to dance, and for the candidates who listen to all the introductions rather than being self-absorbed in preparing their own. It’s magnifying-glass looking at its best.
Other opportunities lend themselves to donning one or another looking glass to better find talent. Binoculars and bifocals can help identify a broader array of sources from which to recruit. With magnifying glasses, customers (for B2C businesses) and suppliers (if B2B) might be spotted as candidates. Certainly, résumés need examination with microscope and rose-coloured glasses looking to recognize skills beyond résumé-writing.
2 Looking to develop talent
In fostering the skills of workers once hired, traditional classroom or video-based training about work can be replaced with actual tasks – or work done as training. This can yield much more tangible and lasting know-how and knowledge, and it can begin from day one.
For example, instead of housing new field merchandisers in hotels, domestic appliance manufacturer Whirlpool’s ‘Real Whirled’ onboarding experience has recruits stay in homes owned by the company. They use Whirlpool-made appliances to learn about features and benefits: stocking refrigerators and cooking meals with oven ranges rather than going out to eat, using washers and dryers to do their laundry. It minimizes the need for formal classroom instruction. This employee experience – themed after the long-running MTV show, Real World – has resulted in nearly a threefold improvement in turnover.
At John Robert’s Salon and Spa, a small chain of hair salons in northeast Ohio, every eight hires take a limousine to visit its salon locations in a scavenger hunt to find signature customer success stories. The search missions serve as a memorable ‘mental manual’, instead of some binder that would just sit on a shelf.
These tasks can continue well beyond onboarding. Houston-based mega-retailer Gallery Furniture assigns associates with various business-building tasks which double as a means to develop new skills. They shuttle customers from remote parking spots to the store in golf carts, in order to gain conversational skills in a non-selling context – which in turn translates into becoming less ‘salesy’ when selling. At times, workers are tasked with approaching non-buyers outside the store, to ask why they did not purchase anything inside. The employees essentially perform intercept interviews, which other companies normally pay outside consultants to conduct. The task requires some nerve and risks rejection, but any good salesperson knows that learning to handle rejection is key to more confident selling.
Other opportunities abound. MBWA – managing by walking around – embodies the very essence of binoculars looking. Bifocals looking can be used to compare on-stage and off-stage work environments. The movement has taught the value of learning from failure; the combination of microscope and rose-coloured glasses looking can enhance these lessons. And would not performance reviews benefit from skilled blindfold looking?
3 Looking to leverage talent
Most tasks assigned to develop talent over time can double as a means to directly benefit an employer’s business. One in particular stands out: equipping frontline workers to observe customer behaviour, as an input to innovation processes. Workers with routine customer interactions have an immediate means to better understand customer needs: not by asking questions – as in focus groups conducted by marketing agencies, with no real-time observation of actual customer behaviour – but by actually observing customers. Rather than just make use of workers to perform operational tasks, companies can simultaneously utilize these tasks strategically as a platform to notice and report unique customer activities.
Unfortunately, the utilization of workers to observe customers occurs rarely. First, workers are seldom charged with this responsibility. Second, even if asked to do so, they’re not equipped with adequate tools (such as the six looking glasses) to become better skilled in observation. Thirdly, adequate ‘on-the-clock’ (i.e. paid) off-stage time is rarely provided for workers to record and pass along observations in a formal manner.
One example suffices to demonstrate the opportunity here. Flight attendants observe many hundreds of customers on a daily basis, entering, relaxing and exiting aircraft. Better capturing frontline observations would have avoided airlines repeatedly installing technologies just before they became unnecessary, such as credit-card-swiping phones right before passengers began carrying mobile phones, or entertainment systems right before passengers started watching movies and playing games on their own laptops.
Airlines simultaneously fail to note enduringly unmet customer needs. For example, consider the awkward attempts passengers still endure to arrange drink cups and laptops on their tray-tables; it’s evidence of the failure to take note of passengers carrying resealable drinks bottles on board. Not only would serving small beverage bottles eliminate this cumbersome balancing act and avoid spills, the bulky drinks carts clogging the aisle for bathroom-seeking passengers could vanish. (“Hello, grab a bottle as you board!”)
Gathering frontline insights can be helped by using several looking glasses. Bifocals looking can compare and contrast the behaviour of first-time versus repeat customers, individuals versus families, leisure versus business travellers, and so forth. Magnifying-glass looking can spot unusual activities. And as with developing talent, microscope and rose-coloured glasses looking can turn flaws, errors, and miscues into opportunities to identify redesign opportunities.
These opportunities predate the current pandemic. Yet with new challenges in staffing, heightened employee awareness of work environment preferences, and concerns for how best to manage virtual and hybrid work, the need to observe better has become all the more critical. All of these issues, and more, amplify the need for organizations to look anew at how they find, develop and leverage talent. Begin with the six looking glasses.
James H Gilmore is author of Look: A Practical Guide for Improving Your Observational Skills, and assistant professor in design and innovation at the Weatherhead School of Management, Case Western Reserve University.