Never try to teach a pig to sing

Photo of a pig
Photo via sneakerdog via Flickr Creative Commons

The best leaders can spot natural talent and provide opportunities for employees to be outstanding. How do they do this?

First, let’s look at parenting. Everybody has natural talents to nurture, hone, and strengthen into life-long skills, hobbies, and even vocations. To uncover these talents, parents help their young kids explore lots of activities: sports, dance, music, art, and so on. Over time, children learn about themselves, what they find enjoyable, and what they’re good at.

But, what if a parent wants a child to be good at something that simply isn’t a natural fit? I know I’ve been guilty of this. For example, I didn’t learn to ski when I was young and always wished I had. I took lessons as an adult, but I never invested enough time to feel comfortable on the slopes. Wanting things to be different for my two kids, I made sure that they took lessons when they were little. Now that they are teenagers, however, it’s clear that one of my kids likes to ski and one doesn’t. My daughter just doesn’t find skiing fun.

I love this quote by the author Robert Heinlein: “Never try to teach a pig to sing; it wastes your time and it annoys the pig.” If I had insisted that my daughter keep taking skiing lessons every winter, she definitely would have been annoyed. (For the record, I’m not comparing my wonderful daughter to a pig!)

This quote also makes me think about leadership and times I’ve tried to fit employees into roles that aren’t good fits. I once worked with a man who is a talented story teller. I remember introducing him at an all-hands meeting. Thinking he would enjoy sharing a few stories about himself, I invited him up on the stage and asked him to say a few words. However, he was not at all comfortable with public speaking, and it didn’t go very well. He felt uncomfortable, and so did everyone else. During the next year or so, I encouraged him to give demos or other talks at meetings, and he kept making excuses why he couldn’t do it, always delegating to someone else. While public speaking is an important skill to practice and hopefully master, he just wasn’t interested. And I bet he was getting annoyed with me.

Not too long after that, my company ran an employee engagement survey. It asked the usual questions…how long do you expect to work here, how likely are you to recommend our company to a friend, and so on. It also asked, “Do you have skills that are not being utilized?” When I saw that the results for my direct reports were lower than I’d expected on this question, I decided to follow up with each of them individually. I wanted to identify opportunities I could open up so that they would be applying all of their skills. I wanted to leverage all that they had to offer.

When I talked to the man who didn’t want to speak in public, he told me that his favorite days at work were when he was invited to meetings to help solve problems. He loved being inquisitive and brainstorming solutions. He loved using his brain. As he shared this, I realized that this was his natural talent. I’d seen him in action in these kinds of meetings, and he was truly outstanding. I then made a resolution to get him invited to more meetings where we needed someone with his capacity for creative problem solving. As you might imagine, each time he attended one of them, he loved it. There was a new bounce in his step.

You can observe someone and think you know them, but you may still find yourself teaching them to sing when they don’t have that skill. To help spot natural talents in my employees or my kids, and to look for opportunities for them to be outstanding, I try to:

  1. Look for passion. Pay attention to how they spend their free time. Talk to them about what they like to do or something they’re interested in exploring. Chances are, you’ll see the passion come alive.
  2. Complement the “how.” Tell them that you liked how they accomplished something, and then keep giving them tasks, stretch assignments, or extra-curricular activities to exercise that ability. By doing so, you will let them know you see their talent, recognize it, and want them to do more with it.
  3. Ask about underutilized skills. For employees, ask if they have skills that aren’t being used. Talk to your children about what they would do if they could squeeze in another after-school activity. You may be surprised by the answer.

Even with these best practices, we may still try to teach a pig or two to sing. Has this happened to you? In hindsight, what would you have done differently? I’d like to hear from you!


© 2013 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved. 

12 thoughts on “Never try to teach a pig to sing

  1. Definitely connect with this! When I was working as a management consultant, I would structure our projects around the skills and passions of each individual on the team. It was a no-brainer and really fun, as a manager, to see people shine brighter than I could envision. However, with my kids, my tendency is to “make them” good at everything. You can guess how successful that is! Will keep this in mind.

    1. It’s win-win when you identify opportunities to develop natural talents that feed into larger corporate goals. I like how you will be using the three best practices in your goal setting. Thanks for letting me know!

  2. Karen – I like that saying, it has so much truth inside. I feel like in my current position there is no intent to improve me from a company perspective. There is a lot of rhetoric about how it is important, but little action to make it so. I understand it is my responsiblity to intiate and i have, but the overall experience makes me feel like i am not as important as they try to “sell” me that I am.

    1. How frustrating! Even so, if you have skills that aren’t being utilized, I encourage you to to talk to your manager about them. By planting the seed, you may see opportunities open up for you.

  3. I think this applies in the volunteer world as well. Sometimes people can re-invent themselves or try new things because no one EXPECTS them to have prior experience, they’re just happy to have someone helping out in any capacity (depending upon the situation, of course!).

  4. Karen, it’s posts like this that make me realize why you were one of the best managers I’ve ever had.

    1. Your post has so many interesting points. Although you may find yourself back in that emotional rowboat every now and then, I know you will start pulling the oars in your own unique way. To quote your post, “go and show your passion!”.

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