Potential vs performance

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What’s more important to your company, it’s future or its past? Any business leader worth their salt isn’t going to think twice before answering. The future, of course. No matter how you’ve performed in the past, the future is going to bigger, brighter and better. You’re not moving backwards, you’re moving forwards. Your talent strategy is fully aligned to the vision, with targets cascaded throughout your performance framework, ensuring you’ll have the right people in place to deliver. Well, that’s great, but what’s missing?

Let’s look first at performance. This is how people have previously handled their workload, what they’ve achieved and whether that met your expectations. Maybe it’s the best thing you have to go on, but it’s not really a good predictor of how they will perform in future. As with the performance of the business itself, there are numerous factors which might upset the apple cart.

Then let’s consider talent. Normally based on an assessment of past performance, or a manager’s gut feeling about future performance, talent identification is far from an exact science. What better way to disengage 90% of the workforce by labelling a prestigious 10% as “talent” or “high potentials”.

Ah, now there’s what’s missing. Potential. The potential to perform, now that’s the future. Yet how many talent management programmes give more than a cursory nod to this key factor?

We try, you may say, but we don’t have a crystal ball. Yet isn’t it true that potential is actually a scientific concept? In science, potential is classed as the latent ability of an object to expend maximum performance once a particular force is applied. So everything (and by extension everyone) has the potential to perform, up to the limitations of genetics/composition, providing the correct “force” is applied. While the terminology isn’t ideal, this is almost exactly what organisations are doing with regards to talent. It’s just there are more unknowns.

Well, in reality there’s only one thing we know for certain, and that’s past performance. Based on this, cursory assessments of future performance (unknown) are made. Because this is unknown we are following little more than a trial and error approach of what is the correct “force” to apply to reach that future potential. I guess you could call this a bit of good old scientific experimentation, but surely there must be a better way.

I find it more than a little scary that managers can be so certain about their company’s future, but an employee’s trajectory in reaching those goals is often little more than biased guess work. A bit of instinct will always be required, but it’s currently being paid far too much credence. Potential could make the difference between future success or failure, yet it’s currently an unknown. We do enough horizon scanning in other areas, why not with talent? It’s time to redress the balance between performance and potential.

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2 thoughts on “Potential vs performance

  1. Ian Walker

    Couldn’t agree more! Its also unfair to judge on performance if there is un-tapped potential in an individual. Leaders should always have an eye on the future; the future of the business, the future customer base and the vision of how to converge to two. They should also have a similar commitment to the future of their own team or employees and recognise how to utilise skills to meet performance but also how to maximise their potential. If you can take someone out of their comfort zone but clearly instill belief that they can achieve their new goals; the success of seeing someone develop and thrive is amazingly rewarding. Recruitment is not a cheap process. Potential on the other hand is usually already available. You just need people willing to help unlock it and remember we were all beginners at something once…

  2. Difficult to disagree! Right now, most workplaces don’t provide necessary feedback but are very willing to point out mistakes and inaccuracies in the dreaded performance reviews. Talent can be developed and potential fulfilled with ongoing encouragement and real-time feedback – I believe it’s a big shift that’s already begun to take place in HR.

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