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Roger Hardy (@RogerVHardy) is CEO and chairman at Hardy Capital and co-founder of Coastal Contacts.

It’s hard to say what shone brighter in the Coastal Contacts call centre back in 2012: Derek Desierto’s positive attitude, or his unapologetically colourful cardigans.

Even in his entry-level role as customer support specialist, it was clear he had something special, not to mention a flair for style. But back then, I never would have guessed that he would go on to help design one of Coastal’s − and Canada’s − most iconic eyewear lines.

A few years later, you couldn’t walk down the street in any major Canadian city without spotting a pair of Derek Cardigan glasses − recognizable by the signature math symbols on the temples. With help from Derek in his new designer role, Coastal grew to $225-million in revenue from $60-million in just a few years. He was one of the best internal promotions we ever made.

When you’re a fast-growing startup, promoting from within isn’t just smart, it’s a matter of economic necessity. You can’t afford established all-stars, and getting a brand-new employee up to speed can take up to two years − an eternity when you’re scaling.

But more importantly, promoting from within is the ultimate culture-builder. The people who are already going above and beyond in their roles believe in your company’s mission and vision. When you give them greater responsibility − and a bigger platform – they become beacons that others will follow. Here’s how to find, and nurture, the raw talent within your ranks.

Get out of your corner office and onto the front lines

With his passion and people skills, Derek was great in his call centre role. But I never would have noticed him had I not been spending time in the call centre myself.

At Coastal, our executives would join in for a few calls each week with our customer service staff. It was a valuable practice on multiple levels. Our leadership team got crucial insight into our customers’ experiences and concerns − but they could also identify exceptional new employees who were committed, enthusiastic and inspiring. From there, we could take concrete steps to nurture that potential.

Once we saw Derek’s eye for style, we invited him into our design meetings, where he blew us away with his take on eyewear trends. Then we set him up with mentors further up the chain who could coach him through the process of product development.

Flag the keeners who go beyond 9 to 5

As great as someone is at a job, the role itself can mask their talent by limiting them to a select set of tasks.

Noticing who shows up for extracurriculars − even fun or goofy ones − is a great way to uncover hidden capacities. At Coastal, we had a number of employee-driven activities, like a book club and an early-morning hiking group. That’s where Nancy Morrison emerged on my radar.

Nancy started out directing our operations when we were tiny − just 20 people or so. But as we grew, her knack for motivating and organizing a bigger, more diverse group became evident in the way she participated in events, like showing up for a 6 a.m. hike before work, or co-ordinating a lip dub music video with our entire office.

As we grew, Nancy emerged as a natural leader − wherever she went, people followed − eventually becoming our vice-president of operations when our company was at its peak of 750 employees.

Promote your problem assassins

Enthusiasm and engagement go a long way, but ultimately you need to be sure your diamond in the rough will indeed shine when faced with a challenge. My test for this is simple: hand them a problem, and see if they come back with a solution.

Back in 2010, we were essentially the first people trying to sell glasses online. By far the biggest hurdle for customers was that they couldn’t physically try the glasses on. We presented this conundrum to another outstanding customer-service rep named Braden Hoeppner, who had developed a reputation as the guy who could find an answer for any problem. He came back with an idea that was so good that it’s now industry standard: the virtual mirror, which lets you see how any pair of glasses looks on your own face. Braden eventually went on to become our CMO.

These days, all three of these superstars are doing exceptional things with the talents we helped them develop at Coastal. Nancy moved to a leadership role at organic food delivery service Spud before going on to FYidoctors, a chain of optometry clinics. Braden is the CMO for SAXX, a line of men’s underwear.

As for Derek, he went on to design school in New York after the success of his eyewear line. Now, with some formal training under his belt, he’s not only an in-demand illustrator but back in the eyewear game. We still work closely together − in fact, we might even be launching something exciting soon. It’s no surprise to me that each of these all-stars are leaders in their own right. True talent doesn’t stay hidden for long.

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