The Seduction of Potential

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There are three areas in which managers constantly struggle. The first is deciding who to hire and where to find good talent. The second is deciding who to coach, how to coach and who to support when performance has dipped and the third is determining who to let go and when to do it.

When it comes to making these decisions, the questions I hear most often, sound like this:

How do you turn an underperformer into a top producer or at least into an average, acceptable producer?”

“When does it make sense to invest your time, money, and resources into someone who you feel you can turn around or who hasn’t lived up to their full potential?”

“How can I determine (with great certainty), based on a defined set of criteria, benchmarks, and measurable steps, when enough support, training and coaching is enough and let someone go?”

During a coaching workshop, a manager asked me 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, I noticed 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 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, “Keith, what should I do?”

The room was silent. All the 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.

My response was, “Do not be seduced by the ether of potential.”

Yes, 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.

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 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.”

We often hire people based more on their potential than their achievements and then try 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.

Potential is based on something that you have not seen yet nor have evidence to support. Potential resides in the future. You can’t build a business on potential. If you are making hiring decisions 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?

Either people strive to live their potential each day or they don’t. 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. 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, managers wind up collapsing potential with possibility. So, 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.

Having certainty and confidence in their people supported by evidence of their capabilities is a healthier, more productive model when creating new possibilities. This is what I refer 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 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 Thirty-Day 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.

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.


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