Who advances in the business world often depends on management’s assessment of people’s “potential”. But what constitutes potential is often not clearly described. As a result, employees can’t work on it and managers can’t be consistent in their assessment of it.
Managers often feel embarrassed about not being able to describe this rather intangible trait, so they act as if it is not a real evaluation criterion. As a result, work is a game with rules that are posted and other rules that the judges actually use. Very capable people can end up puzzled, pointing to their 100%-met hard metrics as others sail by them into higher positions based on this unspoken evaluation factor, potential. Valuable people sometimes leave, seeking a company where the rules are clearer. Others stay, but commit less to a system that does not seem to work for them.
Getting specific about Potential and helping people to envision and become their best, highest potential selves is inspirational. Just talking about it with employees is an affective action that is appreciated. And just talking about it with specifics puts people in an energized and more confident state of mind. People relax and outperform when the advancement criteria are real and understood.
Here is a tool that I have refined over the years. It is a list of Indicators of Individual Potential for exceptional contribution and for continued growth.
- Personally develops valuable new proposals and ideas
- Inclination and ability to interact effectively with the world outside of the Company
- Generative: Sees next steps. Anticipates. Makes more out of things than others.
- Track record of Personal development & growth — eager to learn/grow
- Proven to be able and willing to take on new roles
- Demonstrated leadership of peers. Commands respect in the organization. Influential.
- Able to mobilize an organization/team to effect change
- Explicitly seeks out development opportunities: Actively learns from each experience
- Takes initiative to perform beyond current task/job responsibilities
- Willingly takes on greater responsibilities & broader assignments
- Demonstrates creativity/initiative in problem solving, flexible, develops new approaches
- Takes multiple perspectives. Is open. Is constructive
- Sensitive to organizational dynamics required to get things done
- Able to assess global, big-picture issues
- Actively seeks opportunities to learn about industries, markets, technologies and trends relevant to the company
- Able to work effectively across functions & organizational boundaries
- Strong in many transferable skills (transferrable across roles or functions)
- Clear adherence to a set of personal values
- Proven track record of results
- Demonstrates passion for the business.
You do not have to exhibit all of these traits! Here is my suggestion for how to sort this list and use it practically
1. Identify which of these are most important.
I have marked the ones that I think are most universally important in green. But I am not writing your evaluations. (Too bad, because I am beginning to realize that you have unlimited potential!) Find out which ones are most important to the people who are evaluating you and are in a position to propose you for rewards and promotions. Use this list and ask them to pick their top criteria. It is a great conversation to initiate since it is a high-potential act in itself: You are showing ambition and dedication to growth, and you are contributing to the management toolset. You are giving a professional gift while getting info that is critical to fueling your meteoric rise.
2. Identify which of these require your attention.
If one of the indicators in green or one of the indicators that your managers have picked as very important is a real strength of yours, then develop at least 10 things you can do to make that strength have bigger impact on the business. Read that again. Notice that you start with your strengths, not your weaknesses. I heard Peter Druker speak once – an intense experience — and he said that he managed his executives so that their strengths were so blinding that their weaknesses did not matter. You could do a lot worse than adopting his management style for yourself. The key is that those strengths will always be your strengths and consequently that is how you can make the biggest contributions. Make sure you use your strengths fully instead of trying to do everything as well.
That being said, if one of the high important traits is an area of true weakness for you, then by all means develop a list of at least ten things that you can do to improve your performance and reputation in that area. While that trait may never become what you are known for, you can make sure that that is not a big liability either.
Finally, you may already have these desired traits, but they may not be visible to the people that matter. That is just like not having the trait. No whining: Justice always needs your help. As distasteful as it may seem to you, make a list of at least 10 things you could do to make your virtue visible. Most of them should be things that you do as an ongoing part of your job. A meeting with your boss that lays out your relevant past actions and accomplishments will be valuable ( See the May 6 post, “Thanks a Million, Kumar”), but you have to develop the skill of monitoring and managing your visibility on an ongoing basis.
To be sure that you are on the mark about your strengths and weaknesses, and also about how visible they are, you need input. Ask bosses, colleagues and friends.
3. Implement at least 3 of the actions you came up with for a chosen indicator conscientiously for 4 months. Look at them every week and assess whether you really did more of whatever you chose that week. Re-up after 4 months or pick something new if you feel you have established desired habits around your first chosen indicator.
Possible ways to use this list:
- Edit it to show your priorities.
- Share the list with your teams (edited or not). It is a quick way to show support for their development.
- Use this list at evaluation time to help you pinpoint and communicate specific behaviors to compliment or to suggest.
What do you think is the most important indicator of potential?
Do you have other behaviors that you look for when evaluating potential?