Two very important questions that need to be seriously thought about if we wish to see growth and improvement in our own lives and growth and improvement in our businesses.
Have you ever been snorkeling? Or perhaps put on a face mask and risk looking underwater just for a couple minutes? One time I stayed at a little place called Peach and Quiet, in Christ Church Barbados. I come from being raised by a Grandmother who always preached that “de sea has no backdoor,” so comfortable in the ocean I am not and I’m definitely not comfortable with any deep sea diving activities.
But the hotel offered snorkeling equipment and so one day I gave it a go. The ocean on the surface looks uninteresting…a body of water – in motion by some unseen force, rippling, rolling, sometimes cresting white capped and intimidating. I’ve been to the beach enough times. I know what to expect. But what lay beneath? At first I was scared to put my face in the water for more than about 15 seconds but eventually my breathing slowed down. And as my fears subsided I allowed myself a minute of viewing what lay below the surface. Beautiful fish – all different colours – blue, green, yellow, orange…coral…other sea-animals I couldn’t readily identify. “Wow!” I thought to myself “How remarkable? Who would have thought that all this existed below a surface that looked so uninteresting?”
Unleashing potential is a bit like my snorkeling experience. On the surface you think you know all there is to know about yourself and about others. You feel you know who you are and what you’re capable of. You look at others and deduce, based on your expectations, what THEY are capable of. But unless you go below the surface you are never going to find the hidden treasures.
Spectacular misjudgments of potential are the stuff of legend: A Munich schoolmaster predicted in 1895 that Albert Einstein “would never amount to anything.” The news editor of a Kansas newspaper fired the young cartoonist Walt Disney because he “lacked imagination.” When Indira Gandhi first became India’s Prime Minister a rival politician sized her up as no more than a “gungi gudiya” – a “mute doll.” And right in “we backyard” – someone who taught at Fatima College many moons ago told a young Brian Lara that “he’d better concentrate on exams because cricket wouldn’t get him very far.”
Karena Strella and James Martin, both executives at Egon Zehnder, (a leading Executive Search firm, with more than 420 consultants and 68 offices in 41 countries spanning Europe, the Americas, Asia Pacific, the Middle East and Africa) share in an article in FOCUS Magazine “Potential that cannot be accurately assessed cannot be managed, leaving an organization to face recurring and seemingly inexplicable underperformance by some individuals, the departure of unrecognized talent, and a progressive weakening of the organization’s ability to compete successfully.”
And what does it cost individuals? Many people are disengaged, unfulfilled and regularly derailed at some point in their careers – often needlessly!
Why do we get potential so wrong so often?
Primarily because we operate without clear criteria for identifying potential and so:
- We miss opportunities to see diamonds in the rough.
- We miss opportunities to fully leverage the potential of those ideally suited for the role.
- We assume that because someone is not performing or underperforming in their current role that they would be unable to take on a new or different role – in fact we almost never consider this as an alternative. Instead we try to fit this obviously square peg into a round hole insisting that they improve and get better at something that they are not cut out for. Eventually we terminate this person’s services leaving another soul to think that they have no value and without hope because they truly did try to make things work. Seems nothing was ever enough.
- We unconsciously hire people who are similar to us, which may seem to be a good thing in the beginning but does nothing to foster creativity, innovation and growth. Eventually we yearn for variety and wish that people would think differently. Alas – we may be strong in just one or two areas and miss out on what people with varying talents and strengths could bring to the table.
- We evaluate new hires based on their past performance and not based on how well suited they are to the job that they’re being hired to do now, based on where you are and where you’d like to grow.
Potential is more accurately assessed in terms of traits – basically how a person naturally behaves – allowing us to look past the unconscious biases that prevent almost everyone from accurately interpreting the behavior, character, and motives of people who differ from them.
We all have potential but we need to know FOR WHAT! The sooner we can determine this, the better, but it’s never too late to find out. We need to get to the root of our performance problems or of the performance problems of those we serve.
By developing people in light of their traits you can make sure that they reach their true potential, fully leveraging their natural strengths and effectively compensating for their natural weaknesses. You can also have a clear idea of the kinds of roles in which they are likely to thrive, avoiding the mismatches of individuals and roles that result in lower productivity, poor morale, and ineffectiveness for the individual and the organization.
With a clear and distinct definition of potential, a model with real predictive power, and a proven method for measuring its elements, you can bring new rigor and discipline to a wide range of critical performance related issues.
Stella and Martin summarize beautifully what happens when we know what we are capable of and what people in our organizations have potential for. “Ultimately, potential is not simply about the capacity of individuals but about the potential of organizations. Like people, companies have strengths and weaknesses – areas in which they excel and areas where they lag. By accurately assessing potential throughout the organization, you can create comprehensive talent strategies to correct organizational weaknesses, better leverage strengths, create pockets of innovation, and change direction to seize opportunities.”
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