Here’s a snippet of a presentation that the inestimable Candice Frankovelgia and I did at the 2017 Human Capital Institute conference in October.

Treating people with respect and still exercising judgement

A client saw a portion of a talk I gave at the Human Capital Institute conference. She shared with her HR leader who interpreted it in a way I had not predicted:

My statement: Every person in my organization has worth and value and can make a contribution.

What HR leader interpreted: Every person in my organization is top talent (worth = 9 box high potential status)

My response: Thanks so much for this feedback and questions. The short response is that treating people with respect and as having a potentially-valuable contribution to a situation/opportunity does not absolve us of the responsibility as leaders to make judgments about people’s performance and over-all value to the organization. I can treat you and your ideas with respect and still insist that they get better or else.
This is actually where “powerful questions” come in. You come to me with an idea or a question about what to do. If it is unclear, I ask you to clarify it. If it seems wrong because it doesn’t take some important facts into consideration, I can ask, “what will you do about X?” If it shows a lack of consultation or preparation, I can ask, “what did X say about that?”
The same is true of an assignment. Powerful questions let me deal with results that don’t measure up in a respectful way, but still focus on getting it right. “What else did you consider?” “Who did you involve in this?” “What if this premise is wrong?” “What assumptions did you make about our customer?” They focus the attention of everyone on learning how to get it right. After you’ve asked several of these questions, you will not have people coming to you without having done their homework. It takes a little more thoughtfulness and time up front and it saves lots of time down the road.
At the same time, some people don’t learn and talent processes are designed to surface those persistent gaps in performance and identify a path to improvement or a path out of the way. Using powerful questions surfaces the thinking processes of people around you so you make less biased judgments about them. If you don’t ask these kinds of questions, you end up getting rid of people who annoy you because of mannerisms or cultural differences rather than true ability to do what we need of them. The consequence is steadily diminishing diversity of thinking planting the seeds for group think and other enemies of performance and innovation.

The problem with potential

A colleague asked me for help on his dissertation topic. He asked if I would respond to some prompts:

– As a coach, what do you see / define as personal ‘potential’?
– In your experience, how can coaching help coachees reach their ‘potential’?
– How has coaching helped you, personally, fulfil your ‘potential’?
I think “potential” has no dependable meaning and lacks a specific referent. It is a word/concept that suggests that a person’s current manifestation or display (characteristics, skills, performance, maturity, etc.) is capable of advancing in some way. “How you are today does not represent the limit of your possibility.” To the extent that the idea of potential opens up a conversation about advancing in some important way beyond current (self) expectations, it can be quite helpful.
Measure of potential are measures of some present construct (intelligence of various sorts, for instance) that have some demonstrated or hypothesized relationship with future performance. They propose that “if you are smart enough in some measurable way that you are likely to be able to perform in the next phase of your life in such and such a way.” When we are young, that is most often a measure of your current school performance as a predictor of your next school performance.
So, the typical metaphor of “fulfilling your potential” is problematic in a variety of ways. It posits some characteristic, called potential, that represents an open space, an emptiness, that could be filled. The metaphor implies an inelastic quantity of possibility for a given individual and, as a coach, that worries me because it invokes the idea of fixed possibility. There’s plenty of evidence that such an idea cannot be substantiated. We are all growing in unpredictable ways and assumptions about our development, while potentially limiting in the way of all self-fulfilling prophecies, can be crushed by an inspired individual or can be crushing in the case of a very suggestible person.
wrt to my coaching experience: fortunately I’ve garnered insights, conversions, growth, improvement, enjoyment, reversals, and correction in coaching, but nothing in my change model has done much to help me fulfill my potential other than demolishing the idea of a known horizon of potential and opening to a perpetually receding limit.