In the mid-1980s Susan Boyle was a 25 year old struggling singer performing in local pubs and churches around her village in Scotland. She had not had an easy life. Diagnosed with learning difficulties, she was bullied as a child and at school was nicknamed Susie Simple. For most of her adult life she was unemployed.

But even back in  1984 her talent was obvious. The problem was no-one could see it.

Fast-forward to 2009 and Susan, frumpy, aged 47 and still unemployed, auditioned for Britain’s Got Talent and declared to the judges and audience that her dream was to become a professional singer. The cynical response she received did not deter her and within 90 seconds she had changed everyone’s view with a ground-breaking performance that produced tears and a standing ovation.

Within 7 days her audition video had been watched more than 66 million times. Within three years she had sold 14 million records and amassed a personal wealth of $25m. Nobody is laughing at her now.

But why wasn’t she “discovered” earlier? She had performed publicly for more than 25 years in pubs and clubs and had even won several local talent shows. In 1999 she recorded “Cry Me A River” for a local charity CD which despite only 1,000 copies being pressed her performance was reviewed by the New York Post which said that it “cemented her status as a singing star”. Soon after that she used all her savings to cut her own demo tape which she sent to record companies, radio talent competitions and local and national TV.

Still her phone didn’t ring. It took another 10 years for this “overnight” sensation to be discovered.

The same thing happens in business. And it is a shame and a waste. Like the example of Susan Boyle great talent might be right under our nose but we can’t see it. There are many reasons why this might occur. Maybe we pigeon-hole people and don’t give them the creative freedom to express themselves and therefore display their true talents. Maybe we cut them out of key decisions and make them all ourselves. Maybe we feel threatened by them so (rather than encourage them) we shut them out. Maybe we are stuck in a cycle of doing things the same way we’ve always done them. Whatever the reason they aren’t helpful to uncovering talent.

A good starting point is to look for the solid quiet achievers who always seem to get the job done. They might not have the strongest CVs or the best qualifications. They may not present well either visually or verbally. Don’t get hung up on this.  These can be a smoke-screen to their true capabilities. What they may have is the ability to do something that is valuable better than their peers. Usually this is something they love doing. The trick is to uncover this talent and develop it.

Here are some ideas to consider:

  • Look for exceptional attitude and a genuine willingness (even eagerness) to learn new things.
  • Establish a formal method for staff to suggest new ideas and then give them space to work these ideas through to commercialisation or implementation.
  • Never penalise anyone for trying something new. Instead encourage people to participate and acknowledge their efforts publicly. This may embolden others to engage in the future.
  • Don’t appoint the usual suspects to lead a new project – appoint someone else – someone you believe has hidden talent and
    potential – even if they are not quite ready. This might not always work but sometimes it will (and that is what you are looking for)

Unearthing (and then developing) hidden talent is akin to transforming a lump of coal into a diamond – that is, a highly valuable endeavour that’s important for any business.