Staffing Management

Why We Suck at Defining Employee Potential

By Kris Dunn

Apr. 20, 2015

If you’re like most of us in the world of talent, you’ve spent a lot of time thinking about performance management with a focus on what I’ll call the “usual suspects.”

You know: forms, rating scales, goals, objectives and more. If you’re really feeling frisky, you’ve even thrown in a reference to alignment. Heck, maybe you’ve even used the term, “cascading goals.”

Shine on you crazy, goal-cascading diamond.

This just in: All the cascading in the world didn’t save you from where you are today, the owner of a performance management process in need of a revamp.

You know it, your managers know it, and yes, your employees know it, too.

Buried somewhere in Cubeville, USA (your company), is the dirty little secret: Some employees have “it,” and some don’t. Regardless of the job they’re in.

What is “it?” The mystery factor in all performance-related conversations is the employee’s potential. Potential refers to a couple of different things: the behavioral characteristics present within each individual employee and how those characteristics either enhance or derail that employee’s ability to be successful at your company.

Smart companies looking to simplify and enhance their approach to performance management are starting with the end in mind and moving to formats that provide a clear picture of “performance vs. potential” via something called the “9-box grid.”

Take integrity as an example. Integrity is important at every company, but it’s hard to evaluate. If you’ve never had a problem with an employee’s integrity, does that constitute a high or average score related to that person’s potential?

Approached correctly, the 9-box grid — an individual assessment tool that evaluates employees’ current contributions to an organization and their potential level of contribution — gives you a great picture of where you are from a talent perspective at your company and creates dialog across your leadership teams.

Most organizations have spent quality time on the performance side of the house — setting goals, creating metrics and wrapping it all up in an annual review process designed to give feedback and provide course correction. As a result, you’ve probably got the “performance” side of the 9-box covered.

Ask where they are related to measuring potential and you’ll hear crickets.

Getting started measuring potential across employees in your organization isn’t rocket science. The first way to measure potential is to use the company values you’ve already created and plastered in a “Successories”-type poster in the hallway.

You know these types of values well. They include concepts like integrity, teamwork, communication and more. The upside of using your company values to measure potential is the fact you already have them, and that feels like alignment.

Unfortunately, many of the company values you’ve identified are hard to measure. 

Take integrity as an example. Integrity is important at every company, but it’s hard to evaluate. If you’ve never had a problem with an employee’s integrity, does that constitute a high or average score related to that person’s potential?

Alas, you don’t know there’s a problem with integrity until it’s gone. That’s the reason company values are often problematic as tools to measure employee potential in your organization. A better way to measure potential in your organization is to ask the following question: “What do allhigh performers in our company have in common?”

That simple question serves as a great foundation for the use of two other tools related to measuring potential at your company: competencies and potential factors.

Most of you know that competencies are a set of behaviors that are deemed to be important to a job, and as result, important enough to be measured. While you could define potential in your company by creating unique sets of competencies for each job, that seems overly complex.

When it comes to defining what potential means at your company, you want common language across all positions. That’s where the concept of potential factors comes in.

Potential factors are similar to competencies, but are the same across all jobs in your company. They show what it really takes to be successful in that freak show you call a company. They’re the same for every job in your workplace.

 If you’re going to measure potential, you have to make it real. That means you use competencies that matter across all jobs to create common language. If you can’t find abilities that illustrate what all high performers have in common, create your own.

Some employees just have “it,” don’t they?

Kris Dunn, the chief human resources officer at Kinetix, is a Workforce contributing editor.

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