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Managers often miss talent in their staffs

Managers everywhere are preoccupied with the problem of finding and keeping talent. In their quest, they often forget one important source: their staff.

Workplaces usually are filled with talented employees whose skills are either underused or misused.

Employees in a variety of industries complain that while they are working harder than ever, their contributions or thoughts on anything beyond their immediate jobs are rarely sought. Others say they aren't asked about what career step they might want to take next. If they are asked, they don't get any follow-up advice about what they must do to achieve it.

Part of the problem for managers is simply time. The frenetic pace of the office has cut into mentoring time, which includes schmoozing with employees about ideas, asking for input on projects, helping to identify skills needed to advance and finding what positions a staff member may aspire to achieve.

Some managers don't ask employees for ideas because they don't want to share power. Or they hang on to workers who deserve to be promoted because they don't want to have to replace them. Yet this reluctance to help employees unleash their talents invariably backfires. Staff members who feel underused or ignored are bound to become demoralized and unproductive, or seek jobs elsewhere.

To Michael Bonsignore, chairman and chief executive of Honeywell International, that's a terrible waste of talent. "How can you be a world-class company if your people are intimidated about speaking freely" and demanding their talents be used, he asks. "At the end of the day, my employees may be the only sustainable competitive advantage we have."

The 59-year-old executive, known for his ability to mix easily with employees at all levels of the company and elicit their ideas, spends two days a week traveling to Honeywell plants and offices to meet staff. The trips are time-consuming and often exhausting but are a crucial way to keep employees motivated, he says.

Recently, Bonsignore was in Freeport, Ill., at Honeywell's ensing and control unit. He held a general town meeting, then met with 20 "high-potential" employees, answering questions and listening to their thoughts.

"Since no other executive but me is present at those small meetings, there's an atmosphere of candor, and a chance to get a unique perspective I would never get if I stayed in my office" in Morris Township, N.J., he says.

He says he hopes this effort will help him with his current challenge: blending the staffs and strengths of his former Honeywell company with those of AlliedSignal, which acquired Honeywell last year.

Bonsignore also asks employees to tell him and their bosses what contributions they want to make and how they want to advance. During annual management reviews, employees are urged to define their immediate and long-term career goals.

He tells employees that "no one has more control over your career than you." Still, he says it's a manager's responsibility to give feedback, telling employees what their strengths and weaknesses are and what they have to do to reach their goals.

Mitchell Fromstein, chairman emeritus and former chief executive of Manpower Inc. in Milwaukee, says he advises maximizing talent by taking calculated risks with employees.

In the 1990s, when his temporary employment company was rapidly growing, he moved talented employees through a variety of jobs and gave many young people "a shot at something," he says. "My approach was less, "What boxes are open and how do you fill them,' than "What do we need and who internally could possibly do it.' "

He advises managers to "inventory" the talent on their staffs so they can use it at opportune times. "You see things that are ingredients" needed in other areas of the company.

To reduce the risk of advancing employees too soon, he says he "added some responsibilities and then saw how they did with it."

Susan Grimes, publisher of Allure magazine, says the best way to develop talent is to "create a culture where people feel confident." She builds that confidence by welcoming all ideas. She holds weekly management meetings that span departments.

"If people are encouraged to be smart," she says, "you find that many who are labeled average can do a lot better than average."