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The Potential Conundrum

Potential needs opportunity to flower. It’s a live energy, if untapped at the right time it dissipates. With most things in life, what is not defined well is often, not measured well, misunderstood for most parts and abused in some parts. In most organizations identifying potential is a BIG deal. Some do it more scientifically than others, some more rigorously than others. What is certain that there is no standard way of identifying this Holy Grail.

A common fallacy in the entire process is failure to address ‘the what’ of potential. Imagine you had Sachin Tendulkar applying for the role of Vice President Taxation in your organization. Now any reasonable, rationale individual would say he is a misfit, his potential to do this job maybe low, but his potential to be a sportsperson is really high. An extreme example but just to drive home the point that often in organizations we put turtles on trees and then after a period of stagnation adjudge the individual as a non-performer or someone who doesn’t have the requisite potential. Not much effort goes in identifying the right river for the turtle to swim in and contribute. Every individual is unique and every individual can contribute. The question is where, what and how. To me somehow boxing someone’s potential seems quite a limiting exercise and equivalent to pigeonholing people into something narrow.

Another fallacy around the process of potential identification is ‘who does it’? Often the manager is part of the decision making process, when in reality he or she should be an input provider. If potential is all about having the capacity to develop into something in the future and the intention is to identify who are the individuals who will carry forward the organization in future then ‘Potential’ should be based on certain basic building blocks.

Many organizations choose to consider ‘ability to learn’ as indicative of potential to do great things. Yes, No and Maybe. And I say this because one may have great intellectual grasp and quickly learn things but unless there is 'willingness to learn' what the learning opportunity at hand is offering, the abilities are no good.

Some organizations consider ambition as indicative of transition to the next level. Here is a counter argument, an individual may have ambition and the organization does not have commensurate opportunity or the organization may have an opportunity for which the individual does not have any ambition for. The degree and strength of ambition is difficult to identify in an individual, at best one can guess how ambitious a person is, because ‘ambition is not always a vocal, verbal or visible trait’. Instead of ambition, I believe a more practical indicator of potential is ‘Bias for Application’. Knowledge, Skill or Competence is static unless one applies the same to some outcome. It makes sense because in more ways than one a bias for application demonstrates the individual’s capacity to convert potential to performance.

Another metric quite often used to describe potential is ‘engagement’. In today’s world where loyalty to an organization is overrated and much focus is on creating as much value in the limited association that an employee may have with the organization, a more relatable trait to look for while assessing potential is ‘Social Judgment’. Look at some of the most successful professionals around you, one of the biggest differentiators would be their keen sense of judgment, about opportunities, people, situations and the ability to navigate them strategically. Social judgment comes in handy while converting opportunities to something more meaningful.

As it becomes tougher and tougher for us to predict the future, potential potentially becomes even tougher to ascertain. Are today’s frameworks geared to judge the talent for tomorrow? Maybe it’s time we investigated this conundrum.

Subhashini is a travel and learning enthusiast and currently associated with SABMiller India as their OD lead.

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