Cultivating Talent


My husband Ken and the best leaders have a lot in common. At first glance, one wouldn`t think so. He is a nurseryman, and close to the earth. A somewhat unusual leader, perhaps. He has owned and operated Oikos Tree Crops, a specialty plant nursery for almost thirty years. It took several years from the purchase of the property his nursery was to be built on, to the selling of his first trees. My husband is a patient man and one that organizational and business leaders can learn from.

In the time between purchasing (or cultivating stock for) seeds, Ken must nourish the soil, nurture the best plants and market what he has to sell. Many trees take several years, and some never make it to market for a variety of reasons (despite his best efforts); inability to grow, undesirable traits, and outside influences such as the weather, to name a few. Ken loves the “hands on” work of developing nursery stock to sell. It requires great patience to wait for stock that is suitable and ready to be sold – several years, in fact. And yet, he knows that he cannot control everything or always force the plants he cultivates to have the traits he wants them to have; so he nurtures the best qualities in his plants, even if they are unexpected.

Likewise, great leaders understand that nurturing talent takes time and patience:

Nourish raw talent: Start with an employee who has a willingness to learn. An attitude of eagerness to learning new skills, and a willingness to try new things are an indication that you have a winner. Look for unexpected strengths. Nourish strengths by rewarding and celebrating their successes. One of the least used methods to encourage others is to simply let them know you appreciate them, what they`ve done for your organization, and to thank them. It doesn`t cost a penny, yet others are longing for encouragement. Take a moment to recognize that talented employee for being on the right track.

Nurture the best: Spend your time nurturing the best. Once you`ve determined that a special employee has a willingness to learn, coach them. Coaching is, in a way, a nurturing activity. Help them to understand where their strengths will benefit the organization and where their weaknesses must be moderated. Provide them with opportunities to shine and develop by using their strengths.

Market talent: Part of your responsibility is to “market” this talented employee. Give them credit for their success, publicly. Let others know how lucky you are to have such talent in your organization. Allowing your talented employee to take short term or a long term “stretch” assignment elsewhere in the organization is good for them and good for you. Although it may ultimately mean that this employee has grown beyond the boundaries of their current position and needs to flourish elsewhere, it may be the right thing to encourage them to go.

All of these development activities take time and patience. The effort and care you take in developing your talented employees will pay off in the long run.


I am a former executive in a Fortune 100 company. I have owned and operated an executive coaching firm since 2003 called Aspire Collaborative Services LLC. We partner with great leaders to help them become even greater at developing, improving, and sustaining relationships with the people who are essential to their success. This blog is for leaders and those who help them to be more intentional about relationships at work. My top personal values include respect for others, kindness, compassion, collaboration and gratitude. I work very hard at practicing my values daily and when I don’t succeed, I practice some more. I am married with two wonderful daughters and two spoiled pugs.

11 comments on “Cultivating Talent

  1. Mary Jo,
    I love the comparisons you`ve drawn between growing “green things” and growing talent. As a new gardener this year, I found myself ruminating on the similarities between nurturing talented employees and nurturing the growth of food.

    Following this theme?€”in a slightly different vein: what do you say about the weeding process? ??Š

  2. OK…this isn’t a positive comparison but I’ll bet he gets rid of poor stock quickly. Once he realizes it is unproductive and can’t be nurtured he doesn’t waste any effort or nutrients trying to nurse it along. He moves on.

    Just like every plant doesn’t belong in very nursery, every employee doesn’t belong in every company. By acting quickly you keep from bringing your business down and you may just be turning the employee free to find what is right for them.

  3. Paul, this is a great observation and comparison. Although I’m not privy to Ken’s everyday business, I’ll guess, too, that you are right. The thing that strikes me is your comment that “every employee doesn’t belong in every company”; I like that thought, since it doesn’t judge the employee as good or bad – and encourages the thought that there is a better place for them to be using their specific talents! Thanks.

  4. My first boss was a great leader. I was a young, fresh-out-of-college professional with high hopes for the future. He did noursish each and every one of us, mainly by allowing us to be ourselves and express our talents. He focused then on those of us who he envisioned as more than we currently were. He challenged us, expected top-notch results from us, invested in us. He was always aware of the times when we were a good fit for the organization and when we were not, and acted accordingly. 25 years later, most of us are not working for him, but we still help him out in any way we can, value his opinion, seek his advice. I was lucky to learn by his example. Your post made me think of him and how he impacted my life and my vision of leadership. Great points here and I loved the metaphor regardings your husband’s work!

  5. Jennifer, check out Paul’s comments and my response! I like that kind of weeding.

    Monica, what a wonderful memory. Proving yet again, that there are good bosses out there. Too bad the press isn’t interested in stories like yours – I have a few of my own as well!

  6. Hi M.Jo,
    As someone who has spent her entire working career in a serving capacity I can offer an opinion regarding those who lead. I have had all kinds. From the boss or supervisor who is never available to the one who leans over your shoulder for 40 hours each week only to point out exactly everything you do wrong… yes, I’ve had a wide variety. In all my working years, I have had 2 halfway decent bosses and only 1 really good leader. The good leader is my current supervisor and I am so grateful every single day for him! How on earth would I know he is so good unless I first had all those duds? I have, over the years, shared your newsletters with the duds and also with the decent. But the response I had from my current supervisor when I shared your last newsletter with him was only proof of his great talent to lead. He said he only hopes he can walk beside those who report to him to discover better ways to serve our customer! He did mention it can be very difficult to do the right thing each and every time, but that the secret is in getting back up after the fall!
    Thanks for your candid and bulls-eye points about what qualities are found in great leaders. Because I now serve one, I am blessed.

  7. Hi Amy! I didn’t even know you were reading my blog, and am thrilled that you stopped by with your wisdom. Interesting isn’t it, that we sometimes don’t know what it means to have a good manager until we’ve had a few clunkers? My past track record is a little better – about 50/50. We learn from the worst just as we learn from the best.

  8. Mary Jo –
    Nice post. I also have always favored an agricultural approach to leadership development. It’s much better, with a higher ROI, than the often used Darwinian model (sink or swim, survival of the fittest).

  9. Wally, you made my day. Thanks!

    Dan, I love that – “agricultural approach”. It’s probably less expensive than the alternative too.

  10. I really enjoyed this and it has helped me within what I am cureently working on to compare plants to the corporate world in South Africa, thank you!!

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