Opportunity Identification: How Good Are You?
Lately I’ve been rather nostalgic thinking about all the fabulous professionals I have had the honor to work alongside of for the past 35+ years.
With my new career now in consulting, coaching, and mentoring, to both a number of clients and to my three twenty something daughters, I wanted to take my analysis of these “A Players” from the traditional and more obvious skills to the more subtle and discreet skills.
Opportunity Identification is a Key Leadership Skill
Much has been written about top performers skills in the areas of preparation, work ethic, continuous learning, creativity, leadership, public speaking, etc. Clearly these and more are all attributes, both learned and instinctive, that contribute to over-achieving leaders and individuals.
But one skill that I have observed where less has been written about is in the area of “Opportunity Identification”.
Webster describes “opportunity” as a “favorable juncture of circumstances”. These favorable circumstances or opportunities are all around us in the business world, packaged in different dimensions and dynamics, with different levels of clarity and complexity. These opportunities can be categorized into various buckets, such as business opportunities, talent opportunities, career opportunities, etc.
Since I am not trained in psychology or human behavior I won’t attempt to theorize the bell curve of skills in opportunity identification, but I am curious why some see opportunity clearly, some why many don’t see it at all and some see it, along with frightening and often paralyzing risk. But, I will attempt to share both my experiences and some real stories in this critically important skill.
A Keen Sense of Talent Opportunity Identification
Talent Opportunity Identification is of particular interest to me. On a number of occasions, I saw opportunity with individuals who I strongly believed had the potential to thrive in the next level of responsibility.
Interestingly, others didn’t see it and often argued vigorously against my advocacy. The pushback came from bosses, HR, peers, and all sorts of colleagues, many who really didn’t have a dog in the fight. In broader corporate talent reviews, I also saw a lack of talent opportunity identification that was often disheartening.
While I keenly listened to the feedback, I often brushed it off as a bias by the communicator against the individual. It was easy to do as many biases existed (and still do), including but not limited to gender or age bias, or even something as simple as a single negative experience with the candidate.
At the same time, I witnessed fantastic leaders choose the not so obvious candidate for highly responsible positions with great success. These leaders tended to be highly successful and were people I greatly admired. They seemed to have this skill of seeing opportunity in people and aggressively acting on it.
The fundamental question is where did this skill come from? How did they see opportunity in an individual that others just don’t or miss? Was it nature? Nurture?
Opportunity Identification in the Channel
Opportunity Identification isn’t limited to promotional situations. Channel account executives need to identify opportunities with the reps within their channel partner who are top performers or even better potential top performers that can be developed to be strong advocate for your company.
Treating all reps at an account equally is not only impossible due to time constraints, but will result in a middling strategy which at best bring average returns. Focusing on the clearly identified top talent will drive the account to a materially higher performance, not to mention a better working experience for the channel account manager.
Identifying opportunity with pre-sales engineers, service gurus, and administrative gurus who greased the skids to get things done are also examples where a professional, highly trained in Opportunity Identification can reap great rewards.
Shining the Light on Talent You’ve Identified
Sometimes, you have an eye for talent that others may have missed. The first example of this that comes to mind is from many years ago, when I worked with a Channel Sales Rep named Joe (name has been changed).
Joe was a hard charger, no-nonsense sales professional with a single-minded goal of beating his number and making a lot of money. Joe was demanding of his assigned accounts, held his support team to a very high standard and generally didn’t suffer fools gladly. In many of our minds he was the sales version of a U.S. Marine, and as gung-ho as the toughest member of the Corps.
In talent reviews with various leaders and HR, Joe was highly valued as an individual contributor and received the highest-ranking level. But the review board did not see any indicators that Joe was promotional material. One-on-one meetings with various senior leaders failed to garner the support for promoting Joe.
So why did a number of us see the leadership opportunities with Joe? And, how were we, Joe’s advocates, going to shine the right lights on him to acquire the required support? How could these smart people be so blind to a clearly high-potential leader?
We decided to mount a subtle but aggressive rebranding of Joe, highlighting his outside-the-office leadership skills. As a leader at his church, 4-H Club, and as a licensed paramedic, we were able to cast Joe as multi-dimensional, with a strong desire to help and lead people. Joe’s interest and actionable commitment to these many interests are exactly why I was convinced he would be a solid leader.
Finally, Joe got his well-deserved promotion. Year after year, Joe knocked it out of the park relative to the numbers. And, as all leaders do, he went through the process of developing his own leadership style.
Today, Joe is an SVP at a Fortune 100 company, leading a large team and knocking down a big number. In addition, he’s a fabulous opportunity identifier, continually bringing fresh ideas and approaches to his organization.
The Next Step: Business Opportunity Identification
Whether it’s a serial entrepreneur, an individual in a small business, or an executive at a Fortune 500, the research and empirical data is indisputable:
The most highly successful professionals have developed a keen eye for identifying opportunities.
They see small, medium, and large opportunities. Whether it’s a small tweak to a an existing process, a new customer engagement program, or an industry disruptive change like Uber, they see, often with clarity, but more likely just directional, these favorable junctions of circumstance.
Business opportunity identification comes in different shapes, approaches, and styles, and should not be confused with what one might categorize as “hare-brained ideas”. Business opportunity identification, while clearly having an element of risk associated with it, is based on creative but rational thinking.
Business Opportunity Identification = Monetization of Ideas
A number of years ago I had the pleasure of meeting and working alongside a highly successful serial entrepreneur. When I met Jim, he had already started and sold three companies and had another two or three business plans ready to go, all before age 30. A simple walk down the street with him was filled with a steady flow of ideas on new business opportunities or adjustments to existing.
One notable lunch break was when Jim and I stopped to let a bicycle courier pass by. Jim challenged this age-old business model, identifying many of the pitfalls and profit leakages associated with bicycle based delivery.
Over lunch, he scribbled on a napkin, creating an alternative model and, perhaps more importantly, a few “quick fixes” that would both save money and improve the employee and customer experience.
After our lunch, Jim immediately phoned the courier company that was used at his company and scheduled a lunch meeting with the owner. Not only did Jim both identify and act on the opportunity, he monetized it.
How Do You Know if You’ve Got Opportunity Identification Skills?
Opportunity Identification is clearly a bit murky, as the definition itself can be in the eye of the beholder. And, it’s equally difficult to measure oneself or one’s team on this critical skill set.
One way to do it is to break down the components of opportunity identification.
Step 1: analyze your and/or your team’s attitude.
There is a fine line between having the judgment to not chase the proverbial wild goose with the fortitude to challenge and ultimately change the status quo. Too many great opportunities die a sad death with a negative “management will never let us do it”.
Step 2: analyze your and/or your team’s time management.
How much time does the team schedule or carves out for ideation? What are your team’s techniques for allowing opportunity identification to naturally flow?
Whether it’s team ideation sessions, design thinking sessions, coffee at Starbucks, a walk in the park, or a soak in the hot tub, opportunity identification requires a level of discipline just like any other critical function.
How much time do you schedule to listen to your peers, subordinates, outside experts, etc. to hear their thinking, trends and big hairy ideas? Conversely, are you and/or your team too deeply dialed into emails, texts, and the false sense of accomplishment and comfort of crossing off all the to do’s that never end?
Step 3: Honestly analyze the team.
If this critical and highly motivating skill set is not core to the organization, then it’s time to support it, build it, develop it, or buy it. While this takes commitment and discipline, it can be done and the ROI from both a business results perspective and a team spirit perspective is amazing.
Up Next: Career Opportunity Identification