Unleash your organization’s overlooked talent – HBR.org Daily | WHs Answers

Executives around the world are desperate for new insights, new products, new sources of energy and creativity. One way to find these things is to come up with new ideas about who can contribute and how, whether they are inside or outside the organization. The author points to two examples: the Guarding the Art art exhibition and John Fluevog’s Open Source Footwear program. As he writes, “One of the most stimulating ways to make your business more productive and successful is to invite more people to contribute more of themselves to its success.”

In this era of great fear and scarce talent, there is no question that many leaders and organizations are asking too much of people. They create a pressure to perform that feels unhealthy and unsustainable.

Lately, however, I’ve been wondering if leaders and organizations are also asking too little of people, overlooking skills and experiences that don’t match official job descriptions or traditional business relationships, and thus missing out on the passions and talents of colleagues and clients who love her would impart knowledge if only asked. One of the most stimulating ways to make your business more productive and successful is to invite more people to contribute more of themselves to its success.

Imagine an intriguing experiment that has caused quite a stir in the art scene and attracted the attention of high profile media. The Baltimore Museum of Art handpicked 17 of its security guards to not only guard valuable paintings or guide visitors to hard-to-find sculptures — the roles that match their job descriptions — but to curate its own exhibition that spoke about their backgrounds, passions and experiences. The resulting exhibition, titled Guarding the Art, features everything from an 1872 painting by Winslow Homer to a chair made entirely of pencils. The works were handpicked by the guards, who also wrote the captions and decided how they should be displayed. Her selection highlights “artworks that haven’t been seen in decades,” said a museum curator. “That’s part of what makes it so fascinating.”

It’s easy to understand the heartwarming appeal of this artistic initiative and the lessons it holds for cultural institutions trying to shake up their stuffy ways. But it also holds a harsh lesson for leaders and organizations in all sorts of fields — a lesson about how certain types of intelligence and talent are often ignored, and the value of leveraging this overlooked talent inside and outside the organization. After all, most companies are staffed and surrounded by employees, customers, suppliers and fans who are passionate about what the company does, brimming with ideas and eager to get more involved. Why not invite them to express their creativity wherever they are on the org chart or in the world to help you solve problems and drive change?

While the many art critics and cultural commentators chronicling the exhibit focused on the overlooked works of talented artists the guard handpicked, I was struck by how the guards themselves brought so much talent to the museum that its directors had overlooked. These 17 individuals, whose work identities were defined by their uniforms and insignia, possessed such a depth of skills, passions, and experience—talents that were directly connected to the museum’s mission but went largely untapped. As one warden said, “We know a lot more about works of art than people give us credit for.”

Case in point: Kellen Johnson, a security guard who also happens to be trained to sing in six languages, and often uses the “museum’s excellent acoustics” to practice his classical repertoire “while roaming the galleries.” As he looked at a piece he had chosen for the exhibition, he asked, “If this painting could sing, what would it sound like?” Or consider Ron Kempton, another Guardian who is a published poet. He chose paintings that he associated with the poetry of Frank O’Hara, who was born in Baltimore in 1926 and was a curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Reading about these and other guards, what amazes me is not that the museum has hired such talented people, but that it has taken the museum so long to think about how to apply their talents beyond their official jobs.

The same opportunity applies to customers. As I read about the Baltimore program, I remembered visiting shoe designer John Fluevog, whose renowned company and brand are associated with some of the world’s biggest stars, from musicians to supermodels to Hollywood stars. When it comes to stylish footwear, few designers have the flair or following of John Fluevog, which is why his boutiques in cities from Los Angeles to Milan draw so many walk-in customers.

However, when I spent time with him at his boutique on Newbury Street in Boston, he didn’t want to talk about his creations. Instead, we talked about his idea of ​​inviting his most enthusiastic customers to submit their own sketches of leather boots, high-heeled dress shoes, and even fashionable sneakers — sketches that a panel of experts would judge and that the company would produce and sell. when they are selected. Fluevog also promised to name the shoes after the customers who designed them.

“For a long time, people would hand me a drawing of their personal shoe design or ask if I’d considered an idea they liked,” he told me. “This program is a natural outgrowth of that desire to connect. People want to be involved with the companies they care about.” Fluevog’s program to unleash customers’ talents attracted thousands of sketches from around the world, and the company eventually produced and sold more than a dozen models that based on these external designs.

As with Baltimore, what struck me even more than the creativity of the shoes was the talents of the people who designed them—talents that would have gone untapped if Fluevog hadn’t invited them into its organization and brand. One client, Samantha Zaza, was an artist who graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), lived in Istanbul, Turkey and worked primarily with colored pencil and ink. But she always wanted to design a shoe, and when she saw the program, “she scribbled the original sketch on the back of a device manual,” refined it, and submitted it to the company. Her shoe, called Zaza, sold for a cool $339.

Another client, Jessica Masarek, was a young biochemist in the pharmaceutical industry. But this left-brain scientist also had tremendous right-brain talents, and she applied them to a shoe design that became a best-seller. After her model, Mini Masarek, debuted Fluevog, Jessica took classes at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City and learned how to make her own shoes. “People used to tell Kurt Vonnegut he could never be a writer because he was a mechanical engineer,” she told me. “I keep that in mind as I pursue my interests outside of work.”

Executives around the world are desperate for new insights, new products, new sources of energy and creativity. One way to find these things is to come up with new ideas about who can contribute and how, whether they are inside or outside the organization. The talents and passions of your colleagues and clients are too valuable to waste.

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