“Not living up to full potential”


What is the potential of this sapling?

This was the epitaph on nearly every one of my grade cards that I can remember growing up. And it is a sentiment that haunts me to this day. Not so much that I feel I was a poor performer or that I even disagreed really, but as I have gotten older and learned more about what I CHOOSE to be capable of, the question of my full potential at age 10 seems anachronistic at best. They may have just as well added “immature,” “irresponsible,” and “unprofessional”; obvious things to put on a 10 year old’s grade card to be sure. My recent thoughts of potential in general have left me stymied. Yet, I have come to a tentative conclusion – unless you are talking about physics, you cannot measure (nor therefore evaluate) potential.

Prior Success is not a guarantor of Future Success

My recent post, Nothing Fails Like Success, pointed out that success as an individual contributor rarely indicated a person’s capability as a manager. But the idea of past performance not being an indicator of potential is more ubiquitous than that. In the realm of business, look at Nokia, or Kodak. Both were pioneers in their business. Ironically enough, Kodak was the first company to produce a digital camera, the technology that eventually lead to its downfall and the evisceration of film photography. When you look at human-kind, you needn’t look further back in history than perhaps 125-150 years ago with the British Empire. Its greatness and expanse unparalleled in all of history. No other empire has ever been able to make the claim “The sun never sets on the XXX Empire.” And yet, like the Ottomans, Romans, Persians, and Greeks before them, they fell.

Historically, you can look back and determine the pinnacle of those countries’ achievements (just like Nokia and Kodak) and quite matter-of-factually state, “that was apparently the limit of their potential.” Again, an anachronism. “Historic potential” is a paradox and yet it seems to be the only accurate way to determine it. So what of evaluating the “full potential” of a 10 year-old? Or perhaps more relevant, a 24 year-old professional? Simple answer, can’t be done.

Evaluate Capability, Not Potential

This is where my wandering rant begins to have a point. Potential is a guess at best. However, I can have glimpses of what someone is capable of. And as a leader, my job is to put people into situations where their capabilities are tested, observed, coached, then unleashed. And again, you cannot base a judgement on future capability in one area by the previous success or failure in another unrelated area (supervision v. individual contributor, for example.) The only way you can get an idea of someone’s capability is to give them the opportunity to do something new. This take a great deal of faith and trust, sadly, these are of short supply in most environments (despite all the talk about empowerment.) But promoting or hiring someone on a guess is scarier still, though it happens all the time. When you hire someone from the outside, you have very little to go on, previous successes (see above), their ability to interview, and perhaps a few hand-picked references that are certain to be groomed towards positive answers. So what is scarier; taking that hard-working performer you’ve seen do a reasonably good job, or hiring someone based on a guess? Talking about your employees’ “potential” simply means you have not given them the chance to show you their “capability”.

Possible versus Probable

“Potential” in other terms can be interpreted what is “possible”, an expanse of action without informed direction. Looking back, was it possible that I could have been a world-class swimmer or math wiz? Sure, but not very probable because I had no interest in doing either. However, had they looked at tests of my capability, they would have gotten a glimpse of what was more probable in my future.

When I was 13, I was a part of an accelerated program and had the opportunity to take the ACT test. This standardized test is usually taken by junior or seniors in high school for college entrance and scholarship qualification. I remember my scores simply because of how well I felt they illustrated my capability (not potential).

At that time, the test measured four areas: Verbal (mostly vocabulary), Math (for grade 9-11 level), Science (logic, reasoning, and analysis), and Reading (comprehension and understanding.) The writing section was added later.  Each section has a possible top score of 36 and then the scores are weighted and averaged into a composite score. My composite score was 18 which put me at about the 45th percentile of the national average – not bad for a kid who was 4 grades beneath the average test taker. Unsurprisingly, my math score was low, I think I got a 10 or 11. I had never really encountered algebra or trigonometry at the high school level and this test  proved (at least at that time) I was not “capable” of that type of math. My verbal score was a little higher, maybe in the 17-18 range but again, I was probably encountering words I had yet to gain exposure to (and really, how often have you used the words “promulgation” or “lachrymose”?) But here is where I did well. In Reading I scored a 24. I loved to read. I loved to read difficult things, challenging ideas, difficult concepts. I had a reasonable capability there. And here was the real kicker; in Science, I scored a 34. A 34! Out of 36! At age 13. Putting me in the top 5% of all test takers! I had a knack for logic, analysis, and interpretation. Here is where, at 13, astute observers could have seen a glimmer of what I was to become, of what I was capable. I was never going to be an engineer or a spelling proofreader. Could I learn those things and be competent in them, sure. But I would be average at best. Where I excelled was in reading and logic. No wonder then that I went on to major in Philosophy as an undergrad.

Sadly, however, the reaction to my Science score was dismissal as a fluke, that I “guessed” well. Something I disproved when I took it again my junior year of high school and scored a 36 out of 36. Every other score went up as well, but the trend stayed the same (math-not so good, verbal-okay, reading-above average, and this time writing-above average.)

To this day, my capability in reasoning and analysis far out pace my “potential” in math. And I could care less about my math potential because I have no interest in it. It was never very probable that would be good at math, primarily because I did not care about it or enjoy doing it. What was probable is I would be average at best. This is the trap we can fall into when looking at our employees in terms of “potential” versus “capability.” We judge what is possible versus probable. In the case of externals hires who are hired solely on potential, we probably end up with average much more than exceptional.

What to do

Giant Sequoia

First, stop talking about your employees’ “potential.” You’re just guessing about possibilities. Second, to judge people’s capability, you have to “test” it. Thinking about moving someone into supervision? Give them a project team to lead. Looking for an event planner? Have someone take the reins on an upcoming celebration. Need someone with strategic thinking? Give them a problem to diagnose and recommend solutions around. Stop guessing about your employees and start learning about them.

Nurture what people are capable of and it is very probable they will take you beyond the potential of what you ever guessed was possible.


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