“I wish I knew you back when I was looking for a relationship expert.”

Several times recently I’ve heard that phrase, and it’s got me thinking: What are the relationships you wish you had developed in the past, that would meet strategic needs you face today? This isn’t about discovering people who have leadership ability—the people I’m talking about aren’t displaying take-charge behavior because they’re not currently in a take-charge role. This isn’t about succession planning, although it could lead to that. I’m talking about untapped talent.

Most executives predominantly deal with their direct reports. From a structural standpoint they have little contact with the rest of their organization’s talent. This prevents them from forming relationships with people who remain ““invisible” just because of the organization chart.

As senior leaders, how can we get to know the people who could be strategic relationships for us? I’m talking about the high-potential mid-level manager, the really sharp sales rep, the talented analyst who just joined your firm—any of whom could be the source of fresh thinking for you as a leader.

Consider the high-potential talent lurking inside your organization, unrecognized by the C-Suite because no lines connect you on the organizational chart. How often are you rolling up your sleeves and going on sales calls with a field rep? Forget your VP of sales for a minute; forget the regional manager and the district manager who often tend to filter realism. You want to be where the edge of business is, because that’s where people’s natural talents are revealed. Go spend time with the front line. Put yourself in opportunities to uncover untapped talent that would be invisible if you never left “mahogany row.”

Structure keeps an executive isolated. Structure keeps relationships from rising from lower levels of the enterprise. Think reverse mentoring. Go find that bright person who joined the organization two months ago and find out everything you can about his perspective. Listen to a new hire who’s learning her way around your organization. Let your new hires mentor you. You can learn amazing things.

Structure also keeps relationships from getting in from outside. When someone says, “I wish I’d known about you three years ago,” I want to reply: “Well, news flash: I reached out to your organization three years ago.” My effort was met with “Thanks, it’s good to know about you, we’ll put you in our database of speakers or consultants.” It reminds me of that scene at the end of Indiana Jones’ Raiders of the Lost Ark, where the Ark of the Covenant is stashed in a giant government warehouse. Yes, I’ll hear from that firm about the same time the agents get around to studying Indiana Jones’ archeological find. In other words, never!

If you wish you had known me three years ago, how proactive were you being at that time about talent scouting? I’ve been focused on strategic relationships, which fuel personal and organizational growth for the past ten years. Did you Google “business relationship expert”? Anyone charged with leading an organization must be constantly scouting for untapped talent outside the organization, not just within it.

If you don’t want untapped talent languishing in crates in your warehouse, you have to constantly be a talent scout. You’re on the lookout for the invisible relationships, the ones inside your enterprise that don’t fit the conventional organizational structure, and the ones external to your organization that don’t fit the typical kind of person you typically hire.

What kind of outcomes might you discover if you go scouting for these relationships?

You are looking for people who have the right ingredients to become key players in your organization. Put them on one of those challenges that has been pestering you, even if it means bending the organizational lines. Or put them on one of those tasks on your got-to-get-to-it stack.

Maybe what’s causing you to say, “I wish I knew you back when I was looking for a _____” that you have a lack of relationships that broaden your thinking. Maybe what’s been ailing you is that you can’t think differently about your business. Untapped talent can be part of the cure.

Nour takeaways:

1. Constantly be a talent scout, inside and outside your organization.

2. Give yourself and others permission to work around the organizational chart.

3. Look for the ingredients, not the meal. If you get the right ingredients, there are few limits on what you can cook.


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