Tapping Into Employeesa Hidden Talents


Have you ever been drawn into a bar or nightclub due to a beautifully designed chalkboard outside or eye-catching photography in marketing materials?

Chances are those items were created by staff at the venue and not by someone professional that the owner paid.

Using employees to help your business is a sound financial move, but also leads to happier staff members and better retention, says Bryan Mattimore, co-founder and chief idea guy of The Growth Engine Company, Norwalk, Conn., and author of Idea Stormers—How to lead and inspire creative breakthroughs.

“When people have an opportunity to contribute, they have pride in it and they take that with them,” he says. “The turnover in this business is incredible. This is how you build culture and loyalty; it makes them feel part of your family.”

It also builds excitement too, he says, “and more ideas create more ideas so it creates more energy because it’s fun. Employees want to be part of something that’s fun and is growing, even if some of the stuff you’re trying doesn’t work. Ideas are so powerful for loyalty, fun, and for the bottom line.”

But how can you tap into your employees’ innate strengths and their skill sets to help your bar or nightclub flourish?

Make it easy for them to provide their ideas and let them know they’re being heard, says Mattimore.

He suggests having a whiteboard that everyone can access. In the center of it, write the idea you want input on, whether it’s how to boost your social media followers or how to decorate your bar for July 4, in a circle in the center. Leave a pen handy and ask your staff to write their ideas around the challenge in the center for a week or so.

“By the end of seven days you tend to have a lot of ideas; you can then pick a few and do them,” Mattimore says. “The cool thing is that it really builds—one idea sparks another idea which sparks another idea. It’s an incredibly simple and effective way to get feedback from employees.”

If your employees are reluctant to participate, turn the idea process around, says Mattimore, and use the Worst Idea Technique. Ask your staff for their worst ideas for a problem you’re trying to solve, such as how to cut costs at the bar. This works well, he says, because they can’t fail by not providing a good idea. Then, when you’ve gathered some terrible ideas, “use one very bad idea and turn it on its head to make it a good idea,” he says.

Tommy DeAlano, owner of candleroom and Boxwood Tap + Grill, two Dallas nightspots, has taken a simple approach to capitalizing on his employees’ talents.

He simply takes the time to talk to them, either one-on-one or as a group, out for a social occasion or in pre-shift meetings. “We just throw out there what we need to get done,” he says.

Through this he’s discovered among his staff a chalkboard artist who now creates signage; a music fanatic who helps with playlists; and a social media maven who connects with fans.

But to encourage these employees to open up you have to have a relationship that goes beyond giving orders to them, DeAlano says.

“You need to invest into your employee as more than just a boss. When you have a deeper conversation with your staff you find out what they need to be happy. Once they feel better about who they are and what they’re doing they naturally want to involve their other talents.”

Once they’re using more skills at work they’re happier, he says, but “they also feel more empowered to be part of the solution and they feel they’ve accomplished something and feel part of your business. There’s not many people out there that only want to show up to work.”

Once employees are involved one thing tends to lead to another, DeAlano says, and they think of more and more ways in which they can help your business. “You just have to mention things you’re thinking of and they can help.”

Employee Martin Chen designs the chalkboards at Schoolyard Tavern & Grill in Chicago. The board was there and one day he simply started drawing on it, says Ryan Indovina, director of Four Corners Tavern Group, which owns the venue.

“I don’t know how it first came about, but I saw an Instagram picture that night and thought holy cow!” Since then, Chen has been designing the chalkboard whenever it’s not used for anything else such as specials or contests. Sometimes his pictures stay up for weeks.

“It goes back to the DNA of the workplace, Indovina says. “In the world of hospitality, you become a family with these people, opening early or staying late, we go out together. So using their talents is about the organic nature of building a family.” 

He also wants his staff to express themselves and makes sure he listens to them, he adds. “We always want to foster an environment where the staff can express their personality.”

Indovina’s seen first hand how this makes employees happier in their jobs. “It gives them a sense of ownership, of pride. They’re proud to work here and share these talents.”

“When people have an opportunity to contribute, they have pride in it and they take that with them,” says Mattimore.

But one thing he cautions is don’t reward these employees unless they’re really going above and beyond.

“If you want to kill innovation, reward it,” he says. “The reward should not be the incentive for doing something. Employees just want to be part of the business and the rewards are intrinsic in the innovation stage. The reward should not be the prime motivation, though verbal recognition is great.” 

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