The power of people’s potential

Spotting and nurturing people’s potential is far trickier than it first seems, says Matt Somers. He explains why a new way of looking at people’s potential ability is so vital to lead organisations through challenging times. 

 What percentage of people’s potential do you see at work? I have asked this question countless times at seminars and courses and have yet to get an answer of 100%, or anything even close. Most responses come in the 30% to 60% range, suggesting that there is an awful lot of untapped potential out there. 

Imagine any other asset being so poorly utilised. This untapped ability is a pretty strong business case for having effective coaching at work. After all, in terms of your staff, you pay for 100% potential, but how much do you actually get? When it comes to your volunteers, how much more of a contribution could these incredible, willing people make if we enabled it?

But let’s go back to my opening question a moment. How do you even form an opinion of another person’s potential? When I ask my seminar question, what do people base their estimates on? Asked to justify their answer, people will point to a variety of explanations.

I remember one person telling me about a member of her team who was difficult and unpopular at work, yet they achieved great results as a youth volunteer in their spare time. Someone else has highlighted the many working mums tucked out of sight in mundane roles in their organisation, despite being able to run a household, raise children and run the family finances all at the same time. I also have first hand experience, as my wife had a long and successful career behind her before moving into volunteering, but no charity has ever taken advantage of the full extent of her knowledge, skills and ability.

What if work – whether paid or voluntary – was organised in such a way as to give people a chance to let their hidden talents shine through? The problem is, most people have absolutely no idea how to achieve this. 

It’s fairly easy to see the results or outcomes of someone’s potential by looking at the amount or quality of that person’s work – their performance, in other words. But judging how much of their potential was used to bring this about is difficult, probably quite time consuming and arguably unnecessary – unless we want performance and results to improve. In which case it’s vital to understand how much capacity for improvement there might be. There is a compelling case for organisations in all sectors to spend more time considering this gap. 

We obsess over performance, results and outcomes – and rightly so as this is how we determine how well we’re doing, both on a personal and organisational level. But in terms of making changes and improving things we need to start thinking in terms of potential: what we could do, just as much as what we have done.

Unfortunately, the world of work is not organised this way. It’s hard to make a case for retaining an employee who is currently under performing but whom we sense could go on to great things. Employers understandably hedge their bets and seek to buy proven potential directly from the labour market. Top jobs are filled only by those on the graduate development programme. External candidates must have the right MBA and so on. But just as with a financial investment, past performance does not necessarily predict future results. What people have done is not necessarily linked to what they could do.

That said, we don’t usually employ people based just on a hunch or a leap of faith alone, or retain persistent poor performers on the basis of giving them the benefit of the doubt. What we can do is lead and manage them in such a way as to give them every chance to let their potential emerge.

Potential is by definition latent, hidden or under-developed, so we can’t ask prospective employees or volunteers to bring a certificate of potential with them to an interview.

Instead we take a view on how much potential a person may have. This view is likely to be informed by our own beliefs, values and experience at work, as well as our unconscious biases, so spotting hidden potential is inherently tricky. 

Following Covid 19 and the lockdown there will be no shortage of applicants for any role a charity needs fulfilling. Salaried roles may attract an overwhelming number of applicants but so may volunteering opportunities, as people look to build their CV, make a contribution or just keep busy.

The great temptation will be to skim from the top of this rich pile, to take those people who have bundles of experience. Unfortunately, that experience may position them as beautifully equipped for a world that no longer exists.

Why not recruit for potential? Think about all the changes that are likely to come in the next year or so – many of which we just won’t see coming. Most importantly, make sure you have the people that can adapt, learn and discover abilities neither of you realised they had. 

Top tips for spotting potential during recruitment and selection:

  • Examine the interests and hobbies element of CVs for further evidence of the skills you’re looking for
  • Ask interviewees for times they’ve used the skills they have learnt at work in other contexts
  • Ensure interviewers explore what candidates could do as well as what they have done
  • Consider promotions and appointments from different functions or departments

Top tips for spotting potential from learning and development: 

  • Make a regular point of asking, ‘How much of our people’s potential shows up at work?’ in board meetings, etc
  • Consider setting up secondments and shadowing opportunities in different roles and areas
  • Ask managers to pose the question: ‘what stops you?’ as part of performance review discussions
  • Seek input on performance reviews from a wide variety of sources

About Matt Somers

Matt Somers is the founder and Managing Director of Coaching Skills Training, a specialist training consultancy focused on the idea of the manager as coach. It operates throughout the UK and beyond, working in partnership with clients to ensure that what is intended is achieved. It has a wide and varied client list including the likes of HSBC and Citigroup. 

As advocates of the coaching approach Matt works hard to make sure clients are able to continue developing the skills learned long after any initial project has finished. He is a leading voice on training and coaching in the UK publishing Coaching at Work in 2006 and Coaching in a Week in 2016. He holds an MSc in Human Resource Development and is a Fellow of the CIPD.

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There are hundreds of reasons of why charities should use eLearning but we’ve whittled it down to 10. 

Whether you’re making the case to start your eLearning journey or are looking to enhance the investment you’ve already made, these are the benefits of eLearning that will deliver significant results. 

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