Mistaking a high-performing employee for a high-potential employee can be costly. As Vincent van de Belt, a consultant at Cubiks, points out, ―If an organization is not able to distinguish between performance and potential, it will have difficulty identifying talent.‖
This happens all the time. A top-performing sales rep is promoted to sales manager, and struggles to transition from killing his sales goals to helping a team of junior reps kill theirs. Meanwhile, the junior rep whose hard work has facilitated the success of sales teams for years feels undervalued and decides it‘s time to start looking for growth opportunities elsewhere. Both scenarios hurt morale and drive turnover.
Performance and potential are not mutually exclusive. Van de Belt suggests that ―people always possess a combination of both.‖
But a manager who understands the difference will be more effective in engaging and retaining employees who exemplify aptitude in one or both. To that end, this article outlines strategies any manager can apply to identify, assess, and develop high potentials and high performers.
High performers stand out in any organization. They consistently exceed expectations, and are management‘s go-to people for difficult projects because they have a track record of getting the job done. They‘re great at their job and take pride in their accomplishments, but may not have the potential (or the desire) to succeed in a higher-level role or to tackle more advanced work.
High potentials are birds of a different feather. Malcolm Munro, President at Total Career Mastery, LLC, says that ―High potentials have demonstrated initial aptitude for their technical abilities and…have future potential to make a big impact.‖ In short, they can do more for the organization–possibly much more–with the caveat that high potentials who are consistently low performers are rarely strong candidates for management roles.
High potentials can be difficult to identify, for two reasons. First, high performance is so blindingly easy to observe that it drowns out the less obvious attributes and behaviors that characterize high potentials–like change management or learning capabilities.
Second, few organizations codify the attributes and competencies they value in their ideal employees–which means that managers don‘t know precisely what to look for to assess potential.
As a result, most managers focus exclusively on performance, and that can be a problem.
―When performance is the only criteria employees are evaluated on,‖ warns Brian Kight,
Director of Performance at Focus 3, ―high performers will be the only ones moving up–and your high potentials will be moving out.‖
Don‘t get me wrong–you should definitely value and reward performance. If your end goal is to build a more robust talent pipeline, though, performance can‘t be the only point of entry. Kight advocates working with leadership to profile what constitutes excellence in key roles, and communicating that to managers to help them identify high potentials.