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I spend a lot of time working with my dogs. As I learn more about each breed’s personality, it becomes clear how they were born to do a certain job. Specific abilities come naturally to them: Beagles love to hunt; Aussies thrive from herding; Labs love to swim. When those dogs miss out on the jobs they’re born to do, those natural personalities never surface. They live an unfulfilled life.
In the same way, leaders who attempt to work against people’s natural abilities miss out on their greater potential to contribute to company success. If people are a company’s best resource, we should be leaning into their natural talents to draw out their excitement for being the best they can be for their team. Unless we give people the tools and freedom to do what they’re best at, we’re unnecessarily holding them back. Here’s how we get them to achieve their full potential.
Lean into their strengths
Once dogs became man’s best friend, we started breeding them to perform specialized tasks — hunting, protection, herding and guarding flocks or keeping vermin out of the home — based on what each breed was naturally good at. Now, we choose dogs for their looks, often without considering (or enabling) their innate abilities, but when we decide to keep purebreds, we need to let them live the life they were bred for.
By denying a dog with natural behaviors the right to act on those instincts, dogs end up acting out. According to trainers, many of the “problem dogs” they deal with would be fine if they were able to perform the work and activities they instinctively enjoy. They experience constant internal conflict and miss out on developing their natural personality traits.
The same can be said for people: Instead of trying to get them to be what they’re not, play on their positives. Each person has a natural gift or area of strength, so lean into them. Recognize and encourage everyone’s unique abilities. In business school, they teach us how to get people to give up what comes naturally and make room to do other things outside of that instinctual wheelhouse, but this is a missed opportunity. With greater practice and exposure to building our natural talents, we would improve those skills and further advance.
Create opportunities for them to excel
As a modern dog owner of purebreds, the only way they get to push their natural skills is when I provide them with the right resources. I have a great farmhouse in North Carolina where my dogs get to live the life they were meant to live. The Border Collie gets to work. The Springer is able to hunt. The Lab is a working dog as well, but that can involve hunting, swimming, playing or whatever it wants in a great expanse of outdoor space. The moment we get to the farm, I feel their real personalities come out. At the end of the day, they come inside and collapse from complete exhaustion after a day’s work well done.
In the same way, leaders need to present their people with opportunities to dig into their natural skills and encourage them to develop them. Recognize and encourage when people’s strengths lead to success. The more self-assured they feel in their ability to carry out a task, the more likely they are to persist in the face of obstacles, bounce back from mistakes and set and achieve higher goals. Schedule one-on-ones to ask questions and gain insights into their strongest skills and what their ideal environment would be to grow them. Then, offer on-the-job opportunities to participate in projects with more experienced peers for support and larger opportunities to those who step up and excel.
Look out for leaders
Be on the lookout for natural abilities and stay open to allocating people who demonstrate them to meet different needs. We had a CFO in my company — a classically-trained financial guy — who could take whatever was thrown at him and run it beautifully. He got great results and everyone respected him. Despite his financial training and degrees, we realized his talent did not match his title. He had much more potential to offer in a broader environment that took advantage of more of his best capabilities. By recognizing where someone’s skills might be better suited for another position, we expanded our team’s abilities.
Some skills are easy to observe through work performance — intelligence, people skills and a good work ethic — but there are other ways to recognize potential at any level. A woman on our team was hired as a receptionist, and she was good at it, but fortunately, we realized how underutilized she was in her role of answering phones. Everyone loved her and she excelled at everything, so we started putting her in other places. There was nothing she couldn’t do well. Now, she’s nearly at an executive level and is one of our best mentors. Situations like these remind me to keep my eyes open and be aware of what’s happening because otherwise, we could have missed her.
As leaders, it can be common to put ourselves and our companies into a box of “this is how things are done.” But when we do this, we miss out on opportunities to step outside of that box and grow. Keeping people inside of their designated boxes within a company is like keeping a hunting dog from ever learning how to hunt. With more autonomy to do the work they enjoy, people feel empowered, forging a deeper connection with their company and inspiring initiative, greater creativity and commitment to meaningful company goals. By letting them learn and explore the full potential of their natural-born skills, everyone benefits.