People categorize and use routines to deal with things quickly and efficiently throughout the day. This is a natural part of understanding the world and it saves us time.

Unfortunately, in a workplace setting, classifying people in terms of what we already know about them and using the same meeting routines every time the team meets do not help us to see latent talents or discover team member strengths. To discover who people really are and what they could be capable of, we need to use a variety of meetings strategies, keep things fresh, and change up program a bit.

You may be asking, “So how do you do that efficiently when you have an agenda and a time limit?”

Well the good news is that changing up your meeting routines and strategies does not take more time. In fact, if done right, you may save time as well as getting more information about team members’ hidden capacities.

Keep in mind that it takes people some time to first adjust to a new strategy and then get comfortable using it. On the other hand, any strategy can get old after awhile, but once people know what it involves you can bring it back like an old friend when you need it. I find that using spaces within the accepted meeting format is the easiest way to begin inserting a new technique.

Here are the typical spaces where talent-finding meeting strategies can be used:

  1. Opening questions and probing techniques
  2. Agenda validation
  3. In-meeting responsiveness
  4. Action items, monitoring
  5. Closure comments

Let’s look at the first one in a bit more detail.

Opening questions and probing techniques

There are a couple of places in the beginning of any meeting when you can be mining for talent. The first is as people come in or are just getting seated and the second is at the very beginning of the meeting once it has started.

Before the meeting:

The beginning of a meeting is the time to set the tone and to let participants know you are glad to see them. Show an interest in each person, look at them and smile, ask a question or make a comment that allows you to know more about the people as they come in.

Here are a some sample openers to get you started:

  • “Have you seen any good movies lately?”
  • “Are your kids in soccer?”
  • “What places have you visited on vacation?”
  • “Are there any people in the news these days who you admire?”

Rather than just jumping in with a question that might surprise team members who are not used to you doing this kind of thing, you can ease into it with something about yourself and then ask a question. Here are a couple of examples:

  • “Yesterday I watched this great movie with my neighbor, but it took us 20 minutes just to decide what to watch. It made me think of asking the team to recommend some movies for the next time I want to unwind. Have you seen any good movies lately?”
  • “My daughter is really getting good at soccer, this is her third year and now her games are so much more interesting to watch. Are your kids in soccer?”

You get the gist. Resist the temptation to go on and on about yourself, or on the other extreme, resist the urge to never say anything about yourself. People don’t want to know all your personal details, but they do get suspicious of those who only ask questions and never volunteer any information about themselves.

You may be thinking that this suggestion to speak with people as they come into the meeting is kind of obvious, but I go to LOTS of meetings and I have rarely seen the meeting chair or the meeting participants actually engage with each other. People get to the meeting and they don’t really exchange with each other. It’s as if they just ordered a meal at a restaurant and can’t think what to say until the food arrives. A couple of minutes of a real dialogue with one or two of the team before a meeting and you will start to find more and more information you can put into your “I need to remember this for future task assignments” mental folder. But here’s the rub – you have to be sincerely interested in the other person and in his or her response. It’s not about making small talk. You are looking to learn something new about the person you are speaking with.

At the beginning of the meeting:

To get everyone on board with the purpose of your meeting and to engage their minds and hearts with that purpose, a story with a probing open-ended question can be very useful. You might want to share an organizational story that highlights learning from a project, department or team member. Or, you may have an insight to share about something you have recently learned. A short story from the meeting chair that shows you are reflecting, and it can really help others feel comfortable to express themselves later on. But remember: the story should be pertinent to the meeting purpose – it is not an opportunity to grandstand or brag.

As a variation on this strategy, you might ask team members to volunteer to start out the meeting with a story instead of you. Most people like to know about this kind of request in advance, so you could ask at the end of your story who would like to be responsible for bringing the next meeting story, or circulate a roster and ask volunteers to sign up. Anyone who doesn’t want to contribute should not be forced: this exercise has to be voluntary to be effective. However, in my experience people often secretly wish they would be asked even if they are reluctant to openly volunteer, so offering a few less public ways to say “yes” can be helpful.

The important part comes after the story. Use a closing question or request for feedback about your story to find the hidden talents in team members that you are seeking out. Here’s an example I have used in the past:

  • “I was thinking about how we can check in with staff about how welcoming and effective we are with onboarding. I remember the first ‘real job’ I had as a beginning teacher in a high school. When I came to work the first day, nobody knew who I was, there was no mailbox assigned to me and the secretary seemed quite put out that she had to show me to my classroom. I didn’t have copier ID numbers, passwords, keys or any of the other logistical things I needed to get started, and had to ask for every little thing. There was no welcome letter, no acknowledgement at the first staff meeting. It was a terrible way to start the year in a new job. But the next school I worked at was completely the opposite. I was given a tour, a welcome package and even a gift at the first meeting. Everyone stood up and clapped for me. I was so happy to start working there – it really affected my whole attitude towards the job.”

That was my story, but the story alone will not do its talent-finding job. Use a clincher question that is difficult to resist answering like:

  • “Can you think of a time you felt really welcome at a new job? Or maybe you’ve had an experience where someone has made you feel unwelcome in a new role you’ve taken on?”

Then leave some silence so that people can take a minute to come up with an answer. Resist the temptation to fill in the void with your own ideas. If you just wait, someone will respond and that will get the ball rolling but if you talk, others are less likely to respond.

When the responses start, either take mental notes (less reliable) or real notes (better!) next to the team member’s name. You could also ask someone else to take notes to make sure the information is captured. This strategy is gold for finding out who is perceptive, insightful, willing to disclose, logical, an engaging speaker or a person with good practical problem solving skills. It will bring out lots of team talents.

BUT you don’t want to use this strategy every time of course – the secret to these techniques is that you DON’T:

  1. Use them too much
  2. Let them go on for too long

Set the time for responses at about 5 minutes and then ask people to send you their ideas in an email or project share app if they didn’t have time to share, reinforcing that you really want to hear from as many people as possible.

To recap, two good times to start mining for team talent are just before the meeting and at the meeting opening.

Before hand:

  • Start the ‘before meeting’ time with a little personal disclosure and then a question to find out something about one or two team members
  • Remember to keep your own disclosure short, but do include it to put the other person at ease
  • Listen carefully to the answer and file it away for future reference.

At the meeting start time:

  • Open the actual meeting with a little story from your experience or some in your organization’s experience that shows an insight and ends with a positive
  • Follow up that story with a probing question to get some ideas from the group members
  • Listen after you ask your question, don’t jump in with your own ideas or try to fill the silence. Wait and the ideas will come
  • Either take notes or ask someone to take notes with names next to the idea
  • Keep a file or note to remember who suggested what
  • To make sure it doesn’t take too much time, stop after a couple of people or around five minutes. Ask the others to send their ideas to you, and show real interest in receiving them

I can guarantee that if you use one or both of these strategies in your meetings over the next month, you will start seeing new talents almost immediately. If you have not been known to do anything like this in the past, it may take one or two meetings for team members to realize you are serious. The secret is that you must actually want to know and sincerely want to listen. If you don’t want to know or listen, don’t use these strategies, they will backfire and your team become cynical and contribute less.

The next post will focus on finding talent as you confirm the agenda…watch for it!

Happy talent mining!

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