Developing Talent: How to develop talent in others

  • Published
  • By Col. Shawn Harrison
  • 82nd Training Group
Many of us are intrigued by talent discovering television shows like "American Idol," "So You Think You Can Dance," and "Next Iron Chef."

In addition to providing entertainment value through the elimination process, they also focus on finding and judging talent. When the winner emerges, he or she is catapulted to success in their professional career.

In contrast to these shows where individuals compete to be the best, we strive as a military force to build talent throughout our entire workforce. After all, highly successful organizations require talented individuals--leaders and followers, at all levels--to accomplish the mission.

Television and radio on-air personalities are often referred to as "the talent" on their websites. Private industry consultants share best practices for building talent, directly linking talent to business performance.

In comparison to the talent discovery industry concept, the Department of Defense and specifically the Office of the Secretary of the Defense, also have an office dedicated to "talent management," tasked to employ processes used to guide the deliberate development of senior executives. Even the Air Force conducts a talent management board, selectively chaired by a general officer, to annually assess the leadership potential of its senior executives and vector them into specific assignments.

But what is talent? According to Wikipedia, the term is derived from the Latin term talentum, which means a measure of weight of a precious metal, like gold or silver. In Ancient Greece, a talent of silver weighing about 130 pounds was worth nine man-years of service for a Greek soldier. Today, talent as a measure of value derives from the Biblical parable of the talents indicating "gift" or "skill."

If you're a supervisor, you may be asking yourself how can I develop talent in others? What can I do to recognize and cultivate potential in others? The answer lies in the Air Force term "force development." Force development describes activities that develop institutional and occupational competencies in Airmen of all ranks to satisfy current and future Air Force mission requirements.

It leverages the continuum of learning, a career-long process of individual development. It maximizes the capabilities or "talents" of all Airmen; ensures opportunities and expectations are transparent; develops a broad, deep pool of qualified candidates for key positions; and ensures the right investment of education, training and experiences at the right time.

While development teams, career field managers and functional managers have specific force development responsibilities, supervisors and individuals at every level can and should practice using force development tools to "build talent" in others.
Talent-building investments are made through:

- Education: imparting general bodies of knowledge and "habits of mind" to intellectually prepare individuals to deal with dynamic environments and solve problems through critical thinking

- Training: participating in events or activities in the classroom, hands-on training or exercises, for the attainment and retention of skills, knowledge and attitudes to meet job performance requirements

- Experiences: accomplishing duties in various positions leading to accumulated knowledge or skill which can be used to meet future mission requirements

- Self-development: additive to Air Force Force Development but highlighted in the joint learning continuum, which comes from professional reading, participating in professional organizations and seeking additional opportunities to improve one's capabilities and talents

To build talent in our subordinates, supervisors should look to create or leverage opportunities using these investment tools. In practical terms, that could mean fighting for slots at professional military education institutions and training venues, advocating for the right job or special duty or convincing the boss to spend temporary duty funds on the opportunity for someone to gain the skills needed to perform tasks essential to the unit's mission.

Sit down with your subordinates and review their records and performance with them, show them where they are doing well and where they can improve. Consider whether each subordinate is ready for increased challenges and broadening or if they should continue building experience by contributing where they are now.

There's no cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all solution to building talent nor is talent built overnight. Talent is the result of years of deliberate, purposeful development. Like a master craftsman, do your part to forge and shape talent in others. Your employees probably won't sing, dance or cook their way to stardom, but by building their professional talents you will strengthen our collective ability to fly, fight, and win.

For further reading and information, check out some of the following references:

AFI 36-2302, Professional Development
AFI 36-2640, Executing Total Force Development
AFI 36-3401, Air Force Mentoring
AFPAM 36-2241, Professional Development Guide