Five ways to spot employee talent

“She’s a good nurse. She’s just not very good with people.” I’m embarrassed to admit I spoke those words a decade ago when I was a nursing home administrator. Sarah was a nurse with questionable emotional intelligence and a dislike for communication. She’d bark orders at nursing assistants who had no choice but to work with her. Her unpleasant demeanor ensured team members from other departments avoided her like the plague. Every interaction with her left me feeling like I had just donated three pints of blood. She was draining. But, she was a good nurse I told myself.

I accepted her behavior because it was nearly impossible to hire a replacement. Or so I thought. When we finally had had enough of Sarah’s negativity dragging the entire team down and all attempts to help her improve failed, we parted ways. I replaced her with a bubbly, cheerful nurse who made me wonder why I waited so long to deal with the Sarah’s saga. I realized then that a significant part of being a good nurse is—surprise, surprise—being good with people.

The long-term care nightmare

When I first started my consulting business, DRIVE, I spent a lot of my time talking with owners, operators and administrators about the resident and staff experience. I asked them what keeps them up at night. The answer was most often a resounding, “Hiring and keeping the right people!”

Perhaps you, too, are having difficulty attracting people to your organization, especially the “right” people. Lack of staff results in overtime and agency usage to meet your staffing needs. And lack of the “right” staff, meaning you hire anyone just to fill a position instead of selecting applicants who understand and fit your vision, is more than an administrator’s nightmare. The wrong staffing mix gives rise to increased customer complaints and a poor reputation.

A recent study from the University of California, San Francisco estimates within the next 15 years our field will need an additional 2.5 million workers to meet demand. While the landscape for traditional long-term care (LTC) is shifting to more home-based care, the study authors predict this will do little to address the staffing crisis. Much work needs to be done from a public policy standpoint to address this crisis, but there are steps you can take today to reduce the impact on your organization.

Beyond just holding onto people or getting them not to leave, organizations need to find ways to motivate people so they want to stay. If employees aren’t excited about working for your organization, they will easily find employment elsewhere. There are plenty of options both inside and outside the long term care field, where pay can be substantially higher. If you want them to stay, they need to be engaged.

The higher the percentage of engaged employees in an organization, the lower the turnover. But sadly, the latest Gallup statics found only 32 percent of employees are actively engaged in their work. How do you begin to try to change this eye-popping, and costly, statistic in your organization? Focus on team members’ strengths.

Building an all-star team

Of the millions of employees Gallup surveys, one statement has been found to have the greatest link to engagement: “At work, I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day.” People who answer that question “strongly agree” are six times more likely to be engaged on the job.

How many of your team members can answer “strongly agree” to that statement? Too often, LTC leaders are focused on correcting team members, delivering disciplinary action and addressing failures. When the focus is constantly on what a person needs to do better and not on what they can do well they miss out on opportunities to use their strengths.

Everyone has different innate and acquired talents. (If you can’t recognize one redeeming quality in a team member, you should ask yourself why they are even working in you organization!) To improve engagement, team members need to be supported in harnessing these strengths. This begins with the challenge of the employee and supervisor both knowing what those strengths are in the first place. Only then can they work together to strengthen and refine them to improve employee and organizational outcomes.

Scouting for raw talent

It can be difficult to identify our own strengths, sometimes because we fail to recognize our skills are strengths.  At times we take our own talents for granted without realizing the rare gift we possess. Once, based on employee feedback from an organizational assessment, I encouraged the administrator to walk around the nursing home more frequently and interact with the team. He agreed he should be doing more of this. Then he asked me, “What should I say to people when I see them?” Connecting and interacting with other people is as effortless as breathing is to me! I was momentarily taken aback that this didn’t come naturally to him. That’s the power, and downfall, of a strength. We assume what is second nature to us is the same for others, and we often don’t recognize it for what it is: a unique gift.

The following techniques will help you uncover each of your team member’s greatest talents and position them in the best role to do what they do best every day. That’s a win for employees, residents and your bottom-line.

  1. Use probing questions in conversations with team members:
  • What parts of your job do you feel you perform best?
  • What parts of your work do you enjoy the most? Least?
  • What do you think you do really well?
  • What do people, at home or at work, tell you that you are good at?
  • What do you or others consider your natural gifts or talents?
  • How could we make the most of your strengths?

2. Utilize an assessment tool to help objectively identify your strengths and those of your team members. There are a variety of free and paid assessments available online. One of the most popular is the Clifton StrengthFinders Assessment.

3. Determine the best way to use a strength assessment upon hiring. You can use this information to choose the best candidate for a team and then share it with the group. Plus, what a way to show new employees they are not just a set of hands, but that they really matter!

4. Share each employee’s strengths with the team once they have been identified. Discuss how tasks can be distributed to capitalize on the strongest abilities of each employee. Of course, the work no one likes still has to get done, but you will be amazed to see the tasks some people enjoy are torture for others.

5. Host regularly scheduled coaching conversations with each employee. Instead of the dreaded annual review, one of our clients, Whitney Center in Hamden, Connecticut, transitioned to quarterly coaching conversations that have been extremely well received. That led to an open dialogue about what goes well, what could be better and how employees can grow.

The Industrial Age approach to employees following strict processes and everyone doing the same work the same way is long over. Unfortunately, some of the outdated leadership and supervisory styles still exist, including a focus on “fixing” people. Want to attract and keep the right people on your team? Try focusing on their strengths instead.

Denise Boudreau-Scott is President of DRIVE, a consultancy that helps healthcare organizations improve the resident and staff experience. She is also a former nursing home and assisted living administrator. She can be reached at





Topics: Articles , Executive Leadership , Facility management , Leadership , Staffing