Unleash Your Organization’s Overlooked Talent

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

In this era of high anxiety and scarce talent, there’s no question that many leaders and organizations ask too much of people. They create pressures to perform that feel unhealthy and unsustainable.

Lately, though, I’ve been wondering if leaders and organizations also ask too little of people, ignoring skills and experiences that don’t conform to official job descriptions or traditional business relationships, and thus missing out on the passions and talents of colleagues and customers who would be eager to share what they know, if only they were asked. One of the most energizing ways to make your organization more productive and successful is to invite more people to contribute more of themselves to its success.

Consider an intriguing experiment has been generating all sorts of buzz on the arts scene and attracting attention from high-profile media outlets. The Baltimore Museum of Art chose 17 of its security guards not just to stand watch over valuable paintings, or to guide visitors to hard-to-find sculptures — the roles that conform to their job descriptions — but to curate an exhibit of their own that Spoke to their backgrounds, passions, and experiences. The resulting exhibition, called “Guarding the Art,” features everything from an 1872 painting by Winslow Homer to a chair made entirely of pencils. The works were hand-picked by the guards, who also wrote the captions and decided how they would be displayed. Their choices highlight “pieces of art that haven’t been seen in decades,” one museum trustee said. “That’s part of what makes all of this so fascinating.”

It’s easy to understand the heartwarming appeal of this artistic initiative and the lessons it holds for cultural institutions looking to shake up their stuffy ways of doing things. But it also holds a tough-minded lesson for leaders and companies in all sorts of fields — a lesson about how certain kinds of brainpower and talent often get ignored, and the value of tapping 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, bursting with ideas, and eager to be more involved. Why not invite them to express their creativity, wherever they may be in the org chart or in the world, to help you solve problems and drive change?

Indeed, while the many art critics and culture commentators who chronicled the exhibit focused on the overlooked works by talented artists that the guard chose, I was struck by how the guards themselves brought so much talent to the museum that its leaders had overlooked. These 17 people, whose work identities had been defined by their uniforms and badges, had such a depth of skills, passions, and experiences — talents that connected directly to the mission of the museum, yet largely went unapped. As one guard said, “We know a lot more about artwork than people would be led to believe.”

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

The same opportunity applies to customers. As I read about the Baltimore program, I thought back to a visit I had with the shoe designer John Fluevog, the renowned company and brand is associated with some of the world’s biggest stars, from musicians to supermodels to Hollywood celebrities. When it comes to stylish footwear, few designers have John Fluevog’s flair or following, which is why his boutiques in cities from Los Angeles to Milan have so much foot traffic.

Yet when I spent time with him in his boutique on Newbury Street in Boston, he didn’t want to talk about his creations. Instead, we talked about his idea to invite his most enthusiastic customers to submit their own sketches for leather boots, high-heeled dress shoes, even fashion-forward sneakers — sketches that a panel of experts would evaluate and the company would produce and sell, if they were selected. Fluevog also promised to name the shoes after the customers who created them.

“For so long, people would hand me a drawing of their personal design for a shoe or ask if I had considered an idea they liked,” he told me. “This program is a natural outgrowth of that desire for connection. People want to be involved in the companies they care about.” Fluevog’s program to unleash the talents of customers attracted thousands of sketches from around the world, and the company wound up manufacturing and selling more than a dozen models based on these outside designs.

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

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

Leaders everywhere are desperate for new insights, new products, new sources of energy and creativity. One way to find those things is to embrace new ideas about who gets to contribute and how, whether they are inside or outside the organization. The talents and passions of your colleagues and customers are too valuable to waste.

Leave a Comment