A Super Bowl Lesson: There’s a Fine Art to Finding Hidden Talent

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Feb 5, 2015

Do you know talent when you see it?

By now, you’ve probably heard the story of Malcolm Butler, the undrafted rookie free agent who made the game saving interception for the New England Patriots in last Sunday’s Super Bowl.

By all accounts, Butler shouldn’t have even been playing in the NFL, much less the star of the biggest game of the year. But, along the way, a few people saw something special.

The ability to assess raw talent

Butler played for West Alabama after starting in junior college. He got an assist from Chan Gailey, who coached Butler in the Medal of Honor Bowl and is the current New York Jets offensive coordinator. Gailey recommended that Butler pursue the Patriots given coach Bill Belichick’s willingness to look past draft status and assess raw talent.

This ability to see talent without the typical indicators for future high potential status likely affected not only the Super Bowl, but both Butler’s and the Patriot’s legacy.

Today, most people think of Tom Brady as the elite NFL quarterback who has it all, but it wasn’t always that way. Brady was a fifth round draft pick, at #199, and started as the Patriot’s 4th string quarterback. Yet, a few people saw something special in him.

I once worked alongside a team with below average performance and a struggling leader. A new leader came in and she began to make what outwardly seemed like relatively small changes. One person was asked to leave for poor performance and one new role was created. The other team members stayed and after reorganizing they emerged with new roles and a different way of working.

This new leader was able to assess the talents of the team and then use them in the right way. The performance and success of her team underwent a dramatic change in a relatively short amount of time as strengths were recognized and utilized to fit the work.

Focusing on eliminating talent than finding it

We are going through the college selection process with our son. The large universities in our state have many more applicants than spots – or an imbalance of supply and demand. As a result, their campus presentations for potential future students reflect that reality.

These universities don’t need to sell themselves because they are in the elimination business rather than recognizing and cultivating talent. Unfortunately, even the students that have already been accepted and they want to recruit are in the same uninspiring sessions.

Most companies spend thousands of dollars recruiting with the goal to eliminate everyone except for the one person that matches the job description. The recruiter may miss a very special candidate that falls short of the five years of industry experience, but had other traits that made them extraordinary.

How many of us know someone who after four interviews never heard back from a company they really liked? Or three weeks after signaling a high likelihood of an offer heard through the grapevine that someone else got the job? We all know these stories because the candidates not selected rarely receive special care or consideration for another opportunity.

This approach is based on elimination rather than assessing if this talented person may fit or contribute – even if as a word of mouth advocate that shares, “they are a great company with great people.”

The recruiting process is designed differently when it’s a numbers game rather than a talent assessment process designed to grow your reputation and your brand.

And, there are needles in the haystack — if you look.

Are you creatively using talent?

I’m fascinated by the college teams and coaches that never get the top recruits yet still find the way to win.

Alabama’s recruiting class almost always attracts the most nationally ranked high school college recruits and this year appears to be no exception. Logic says that if you consistently have the best talent you’ll increase your likelihood of winning and this has been true for Alabama and coach Nick Saban.

But what about coach Gary Patterson at Texas Christian University (TCU), a program that consistently finds a way to win? I’ve read that Patterson has the highest percentage of players who play a different position in college than they played in high school. He and his staff look at the talent of a high school athlete and rather than assess how they stack up at wide receiver, as an example, they assess overall talent and then determine his viability at TCU.

Julian Edelman, another Patriot’s success story, was drafted in the seventh round and had been a previous high school and college (Kent State) quarterback. Again, someone saw something and this spirited player became a key ingredient not as a quarterback – but as a wide receiver and punt returner. Edelman’s talents were translated and used in a different way than his history would suggest.

Julian Edelman and his teammate, Malcolm Butler, were the guests of honor at Disneyland this week – an outcome that probably neither of them could have possibly imagined not very long ago.

It’s because someone saw something special.

was originally published on PeopleResult’s Current blog.