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A friend told me the story of a relatively new employee where she works. She’d changed departments and was no longer available for mentoring, and lamented that nobody else was stepping up.

“Why don’t they see that if they lit and fed his fire, they could all warm their hands around it for years to come?”

Why, indeed? I can come up with answers I could imagine giving myself – he’s doing pretty well, and I’m clobbered by deadlines. Or: I’m glad to help with questions but I’m waiting for his initiative. Both of these are reasonable answers - the problem being they assume value in what is immediately evident, as opposed to what might emerge.

In a workshop years ago, I was paired for conversation with a woman who gave the immediate visual impression of painful thinness. Our task was to share stories about when a performance evaluation system worked really well. My conversational partner said that indeed, she had struggled with an eating disorder throughout her adult life, and it had colored perceptions of her capabilities – others as well as herself. At one point in her career her supervisor had named management gifts in her that she didn’t realize existed. To be seen as something beyond anorexic was literally life-changing, not only professionally but personally. Through the gift of her supervisor’s clear vision she also started to see herself as a whole person with potential. She credited this turn of events with her eventual marriage and family. I picked my jaw off the floor and wondered if I’d ever seen someone into their gifts the way that this woman had experienced.

There’s something powerful in saying “I see something in you that’s needed here”, but there are other ways to surface people’s gifts. Organizations that are self-managing create structures for people to step proactively into what they love and do well. In his book Reinventing Organizations Frederic Laloux describes companies that expose and train workers in several areas during their onboarding – including a tour of duty in several front-line roles for managerial roles. Not only does this provide knowledge of the entire organizational system, it also creates opportunity to identify places where they might leverage their interest and talent to make improvements. It may be in a role that wasn’t originally what they intended, but they are building a system of scanning, learning, and self-activation.

The systems are complementary, and either way, my friend provided a good reminder: no matter what kind of organization I’m working with, a culture of participation means looking for – even expecting - treasure in everyone I’m privileged to work with.

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