Weekly Thought - 80 - The Ether of Potential

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Our organization is in the midst of a  “performance review” of people in key positions as we prepare for some upcoming new opportunities,  and it reminded me of something that happened during a coaching workshop I attended a couple of years ago.  A manager stood up in the session and asked how to handle an underperformer.

While the manager shared in great detail the challenges she was having with a salesperson she hired several months ago, what I noticed was the reaction from the audience!    Their heads were nodding up and down in agreement, as if she was sharing not just her story but everyone's story. 

She told an all too familiar tale of a new, promising hire with incredible potential who wasn't working out.  A candidate with a wonderful resume, great background, stellar references, and a seemingly positive attitude, whose experience seemed to be a perfect complement to the new position.

The manager explained how this promising young superstar became one of her biggest disappointments, frustrations and expense. And it wasn’t as if she just called it quits after a few weeks and fired this person. Like most managers, she invested precious time trying to turn the person around. The more time she invested in supporting and training this person, the more her expectations were shattered.

This manager was (in her mind) stuck. She didn't know what to do. The new hire was costing her money, time, selling opportunities and resources.

She ended her story with what sounded like a desperate cry for help, "what should I do?"

The room became very silent. It was clear that all of us, managers and business owners, were gripping the edges of their seats, waiting, anticipating a magnificent piece of brilliance, a solution to this common and painfully eternal dilemma.

The response from the trainer struck a chord in many of us and I still recall it.  It was, "Do not be seduced by the ether of potential."


Ok, face it.  We are often seduced by the potential we believe we see in others. We see potential in the people and opportunities, all around us. We see potential in our new hires and untapped potential in our veterans.   It’s hard not to get comfortable with the promise of that potential.

We believe that, if we give them just a little more time, resources, training, attention, they’ll finally live up to their potential. We believe our employees when they tell us, "Just give me a few more weeks. I'm about to close in on two big sales. Yes, I know my performance has slipped, but as I told you, those problems that have been distracting me are no longer there."

We think, "Okay, if they really could turn it around that would make my life so much easier. After all, it sure beats the painful and time-consuming process of having to recruit someone new, let alone having to figure out how to cover a territory with no salesperson!"

Ironically, it costs more in time, money, resources, internal conflict and lost sales to keep someone like this on your team. And, you’ll have less time to focus on growing your business and on the people who are performing.

That's when it happens. The seduction begins. You begin making decisions based on your emotions, feelings, hopes and unrealistic scenarios, rather than on the facts and what is best for you, the company and frankly, the person in question.

The seduction of potential clouds your better judgment. If you’re looking for evidence of this, just glance over at the people on your team today. When dealing with an underperformer, how many times have you thought, "Just one more week. He'll turn it around. I know he can do it. If he just follows the program. Just let him get through this next project. I hope he brings in some new business soon."

I’m as guilty of it as anyone.  We have hired people based more on their potential than their achievements and then have tried to develop the potential we see in them. After all, the goal of management is to make your people more valuable. The key here is investing your time in making the right people more valuable. Otherwise, it’s a time-consuming and exhausting exercise in futility.  We’ve had our share of  failures and success.

Potential is based on something that you have not seen yet nor have evidence to support. Potential resides in the future, and unfortunately you can’t build a business on potential. If hiring decisions are based on people's potential, and the candidates haven’t been living their potential by the time you meet them, what makes you think they are going to start living it once you hire them? 

You may be good at managing your people, but NOBODY is that good.

Either people strive to live their potential each day or they don't. It is what it is.   

It's management's responsibility to ensure each person on their team has the systems, tools, resources, training and coaching that allows them to do so.  

Hey, I’m all for continued improvement…..BUT, the difference between working off potential and lifelong improvement is this:    With potential, you're looking for something that you have not seen yet nor have evidence for. With lifelong improvement, you're working with a known quantity and have the empirical evidence (possibly from past experiences) that supports your belief that turning this person around is truly possible. You have the verification, commitment and evidence that the situation can be made better.

The real problem is, the best managers wind up collapsing potential with possibility. So, I guess what truly seduces you is the potential of possibility.

What's missing for managers is certainty. It's the uncertainty, the unknown, the fear that paralyzes managers who have to decide whether to terminate someone or invest time into turning them around. Managers rely more on their fear based gut reactions than on the facts and those gut reactions sometimes steer you in the wrong direction.

Having certainty and confidence in their people supported by evidence of their capabilities is a healthier, more productive model when creating new possibilities. It’s healthier for the company and it’s actually healthier for the employee. 

I think this is what the trainer referred to as “authentic human potential.”  The certainty comes from having a defined coaching program. Once you have a structured coaching program that sets expectations and holds people accountable on a daily and weekly basis, you no longer have to decide to retain or terminate them. 

Underperformers will make that decision for you, based on the defined set of criteria, goals and measurable action steps they need to take to demonstrate their commitment to their position and to dramatically improve their performance.   If everyone is being honest and are confronted with the fact that they’re not measuring up, then most necessary changes become amicable.

If you are responsible for hiring, developing, and managing a team, what process do you have in place to leverage their strengths from the time of hire through their first 30, 60, 90, even 120 days? Would having a New Hire Orientation Program for every hire that details the measurable steps to take and the objectives they need to reach during this timeline help you and your team?  Wouldn't this simplify your life dramatically? Now that you have a proven process documented, either the new hire is sticking by the program and achieving the expected results, or not. There's no room for you to be seduced by the potential of possibility. There's no probation or need to wait for the year-end performance appraisals.  It’s something to think about, isn’t it?

You can now run your business or manage your team with greater efficiency.

Once these processes are in place, you’ll be able to get back to doing what every manager is destined to do in the first place: make your people even more valuable.