In 1778, James Madison was a member of Virginia Governor Patrick Henry’s council of state. The council was compromised of eight wealthy, influential men. Men like John Blair, a lawyer and future associate justice on the Supreme Court. Nathaniel Harris and David Jameson, both future state senators.  The group was meant to provide advice on political policy to the Governor.

But then, the new Virginia Constitution was written.

Now, this document was created by a large governing body highly fearful of having one leader with ultimate authority. The fear had its merit.  The desire to avoid mirroring the English monarchy was high on everyone’s mind. The new state constitution divided power among new legislative and judicial groups and modified the governorship such that the governor had little say in state policy and was relatively ineffectual.

Yet the council remained. This was a group of political talent with knowledge on all the issues of the day – finance, military, recruiting, and governing policy – but the individuals could do very little to drive change for their state. Their hands were tied by the bureaucracy of their environment and the inability of others to see the value of their efforts.

Madison, upset by the inabilities of the group and what I can only imagine is the drudgery of such a position, called the council “a grave of useful talent.”

I’ve thought a lot about Madison’s characterization here. It’s a phrase that sticks with you. Sure, it’s morose and a little dire for application to an agency, but it provides a certain motivation to identify places where a company can fall into the trap of wasting the talent of individuals.

How do you create a culture and a work structure that encourages talent?

To me, there are three core elements of a workplace that help foster talented individuals.

An Environment of Innovation

A work culture must support new ideas and new exploration if a company wants to invigorate talented individuals. Building time into people’s day for testing theories, trying new software or exploring off-the-wall tactics, feeds some people’s sense of curiosity and adventure. Try putting in place a general path for any team member to test new ideas and provide parameters that should be met and then see what they bring to the table. Useful talent will always create amazing things or learn something from the experiment.

An Environment for Expertise

Talented individuals are not always looking to chase new ideas. Some are more interested in perfecting their craft, becoming more efficient or polishing processes and ideas. Having a work culture where some work can be steady so it can be perfected can be a motivation. Check-in with staff members regularly and discuss what parts of the job they are most passionate about and figure out how they can hone that skill.  You may find you have the future leader of a new business group or expert on a specific service sitting across from you.

An Environment for Collaboration

Most everyone feeds off the creative ideas of others. We get excited when we share ideas and thoughts with other bright individuals and it creates an energy for the whole company.  Schedule regular company-wide knowledge sharing and education meetings. Give individuals or business groups regular opportunities to share what they know, discuss new ideas or educate the company on what they do.   Amazing ideas come out of meetings where technical experts hear new ideas from creative teams.