A top reason an under-performer is kept on a payroll despite failing to realize results is because his or her manager touts the person’s “high potential.” This is notwithstanding the fact that the employee has accomplished little or nothing of significance in their job up to that point.
While it is important to have employees with high potential, continually touting someone’s potential is normally an indication that the person hasn’t actually done much yet. The dictionary’s definition of potential bears this out: a latent excellence or ability that may or may not be developed; possible, as opposed to actual. To fully appreciate the implications of this definition, it’s also helpful to grasp how latent is defined: potentially existing but not presently evident or realized.
Have you or your managers been hiding behind “potential” as a means to rationalize keeping someone who does not presently add value to your team? Consider the following four thoughts in this regard:
1. Potential is common. In fact, it can be confidently stated that everyone has potential at something.
2. Unfulfilled potential is nearly as common as potential itself. The world abounds with those who, on their deathbed, are haunted by personal confessions like, “I could have,” “I should have,” “if only I would have.” Calvin Coolidge nailed it when he said: “The most common commodity in this country is unrealized potential.”
3. Continually falling short of one’s potential may indicate serious flaws within an individual: lack of drive, passion, character, discipline, focus, work ethic, energy, or persistence. Someone who cannot develop or control these aspects of their lives will normally require enormous amounts of management time and energy as their leaders beg, threaten, and regularly pump up a laggard with “potential” in order to get them to do their jobs. To once again quote Coolidge: Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan ‘Press On’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race. As author Liane Cordes observed, “Continuous effort – not strength or intelligence – is the key to unlocking our potential.”
4. You are expected to work with someone according to their potential for a period of time, but eventually you must work with them in accordance with their performance. In other words, there comes a day when people with potential must stop belching out the baloney and bring home the bacon. How long should you work with someone according to their potential depends upon several factors. Common sense is more useful here than a cut and dry, pre-established cut-off date. Here are three guidelines:
A. Even if the person is not growing as fast as you’d like, do you see measurable progress in reasonable periods of time. and without “one step forward and two steps back” regressions? If so, continue investing in the employee.
B. What is holding them back: teachable or unteachable deficiencies? Both knowledge and skills related to job competence can be developed through training. But if they lack “inside” traits related to their character, drive or attitude, there is little you can do to influence these factors in a meaningful way. You should cut your losses and redirect your energies into finding and developing people who possess those vital critical success factors.
C. Has your management team done its job to create a culture conducive to developing the potential of others? An employee may have a bag filled with fertile seed, but the seed in their bag won’t produce a harvest unless there is fertile ground in which to sow. Creating this environment includes duties like setting clear expectations, ongoing training and coaching, and a value system that rewards results over tenure, experience, and best efforts. It is the responsibility of your leadership team to: select employees with the “right stuff” in the first place, and then draw out those assets in order to make up the difference between where someone is currently and where they have the potential to grow. In the absence of fulfilling these responsibilities, discarding someone for failing to perform is reckless and unfair.
The Nike slogan, “Just do it” never resonated with me, because it smacked of procrastination. “Just do it” indicates that you haven’t done anything yet. In order for each of us to move forward in our jobs and in life, we must move from “just do it’ to “just did it.” The same holds true for the underachieving high potentials that remain on your team. It’s on your watch that they continue to waste resources and opportunities, relegating you more of an enabler than a leader as you preside over their mediocrity and abet the diminishment of your enterprise.