Years ago I ate at a restaurant in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where I saw a giant cork board made from a scrap of wood and wine corks. The wood was rough, and the corks were just the typical variety that came out of bottles they opened at the bar; but when an artist combined those worthless elements together, they formed an intricate, one-of-a-kind piece of art on par with a quilt or a piece of stained glass.
The French have a word bricolage, which loosely means to make creative and resourceful use of whatever materials are at hand (regardless of their original purpose). In English, we might use the phrase “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure” to describe a similar concept. The essence of bricolage is to convert something of little value to something unique and priceless.
Smart leaders realize that all of their employees have value, even the ones whose value might be a harder to spot.
My friend, Terry, managed a team of customer service representatives for a hotel chain. All of his employees were successful to varying degrees at performing their jobs. However, the nature of the job changed quite suddenly. Over night, the job went from providing customers with knowledgeable, personable service to requiring service reps to act as sales agents required to “upsell” every caller to purchase more expensive goods or services.
Terry told me that some of his best reps struggled to make the change. It seemed to Terry that the reps who were the most knowledgeable, friendly, and personable with customers–in other words, the ones who knew how to build loyal customers–were the worst at selling. His most experienced reps couldn’t hit their sales numbers. After all reps were given training on the new policies and performance standards, they were told that they had four weeks to reach their sales quotes, or they would be out of a job.
Terry related to the customer service representatives who excelled at one part of the job but struggled at another. Terry was great at strategic thinking, win-win problem solving, and creating loyal employees; however, Terry struggled with delivering bad new like telling people that they didn’t cut it.
So Terry harnessed his own strengths when he met with his boss. Terry told his boss that the very thing that his employees were bad at doing should be viewed as their best selling point, one that they could use to add value.
“What if I repurpose our poorest performing sales reps to create a concierge service program offered to our top guests of this hotel chain? These A-list customer service reps will exist to offer a level of service that rivals any 5-Star hotel,” Terry promised.
This concept later evolved into the Starwood Preferred Guest program of the Westin family of hotels.
Leader, look around you. See that employee who has a hard time sitting still because she’s busy talking to her coworkers? She is a natural leader, and people listen to her. Don’t view her as broken; view her as bricolage, possessing traits and skills you can harness to accomplish some great things. How about that guy who works alone doing research all day? You want him to be a team player, I know. But how about you let him conduct research that he shares with the team? He can do what he does best while helping you and the team succeed. Don’t view him as a caveman; view him as a creative who offers you and your team a competitive advantage.
Some of your worst employees are perfect just the way they are. They might look like a scrap of rotten wood or a old wine cork. Be an artist. See their beautiful potential. You need them and can use them to get uncommonly good results.
We all have different strengths. Encourage it! Where average leaders cry for uniform standards, great leaders make room for unique specialists! Which of your employees do you need to re-evaluate and tap into today?