Engaging Exceptional Talent

This post is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, “The Art of HR”. For my final Doctoral project, I researched how Top Employers provide effective HR services to their organizations. I compiled my results into this book. Please email me directly if you would like a copy.

Developing and retaining the best employees is one of the top future challenges for HR departments. In 2006, I studied the integration of artists into churches in Western Canada, as part of my Master’s Major Project. I interviewed numerous artists and church leaders for this project and pondered how church leaders could bolster their relationships with artists. There are large pools of untapped artistic talent in most churches, and most church leaders struggle with what to do with that talent. I found that a utilitarian approach to artists in the church severely harmed this relationship, sometimes irreparably. When church leaders “used” artists for their own narrow agenda, the artists resisted or left. Most never returned. I called this a utilitarian view of the arts and artists, where the artist is only useful for his or her talent, not for who he or she is.

None of the artists I interviewed liked being pigeonholed into a single category (i.e. a painter, sculptor, graphic artist etc.). Those things were talents; not who they were. An artist is an artist, but may also be a father or mother, a student, a traveller, a lover, a questioner, or anything that any other human might be. A caring church community was much more attractive to these artists than a congregation that seemed to do a great job of using the arts. When church leaders took the time to get to know these artists as people first, and artists second, then the artists thrived in their church. Paradoxically, these artists then willingly embraced their art form as a form of service in the church.

I think many (most?) organizations treat their employees in a similar utilitarian manner. They “use” employees for their talents, and then discard them when their usefulness expires. An employee’s worth is measured by his or her utility, not on who they are. It is little wonder that loyalty is dropping while selfishness is increasing. What do we really expect as leaders? Why does it surprise us when our talent is not engaged, when we so easily treat them as a commodity? There is no easy solution to this issue, and I am not going to trivialize this issue by presenting a five-step process to doing so. Engaging exceptional talent starts with the heart of the leaders in the organization. It must include building a caring community that values the person for who he or she is, not merely for what he or she produces.

Engaging talent cannot be done from an off-site corporate headquarters where HR leaders rarely interact with operational leaders. It must be done through direct and personal contact with employees at all levels of the organization. This visibility is important, because it gives HR leaders opportunities to see what is actually happening in the organization. Surveys and reports are extremely useful, but sometimes a cup of coffee with a front-line employee can tell an HR leader just as much, and sometimes more, than an expensive research study. Useful intelligence is gathered through interaction, not just by third-hand reports. That intelligence is crucial to the long-term success of the organization. Are HR leaders ready to embrace that role?

Tim Vanderpyl is a Certified Human Resource Professional (CHRP) with Canada’s largest catholic healthcare organization. He holds a Master of Arts in Leadership from Trinity Western University and is working toward a Doctorate in Strategic Leadership at Regent University.