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  • Writer's pictureSETH MCCOLLEY

Performance vs. there a difference?

Is there a difference between performance and potential? 

The answer is a resounding yes, particularly when you're talking about talent and employee development. The mistake that many (if not most) organizations make these days is that they're confusing one for the other or even worse, lumping them into the same group (and usually calling them high potential or Hi Po).

Having supported sales organizations a few different times in my career, I've seen this play out more times than I can count. It goes something like this...

Sales Director: "I've got an open Sales Manager spot to fill and I think Bobby is the right guy for the job."

HR Manager: "Oh's that? 

Sales Director: "Well, he's got the best sales numbers in the entire division! Did you take a look at the TPS reports last week? The guy's been killing it for the last three quarters. He's a perfect fit."

HR Manager: "Of course I looked at the TPS reports! I know he's the best salesperson on your team, but what makes him the most qualified for the open role? Has he led a team before? Has he ever managed anyone?"

Sales Director: "What's it matter? Bobby is the top salesperson on my team. He's a natural leader!"

Anyone else ever had this conversation? Can I get an 'amen' up in here?

It was Abraham Maslow that said, "If you only have a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail."

One of the biggest mistakes that organizations can make, when it comes to their talent, is mistaking high potential for high performance. This great blog post from Kyle Lagunas of Software Advice, gives managers some tools to help identify, assess and develop high potentials and high performers. Check this out... 

"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."

True. Dat.

I've seen high performance get mistaken for high potential, firsthand, and you know what it usually equates to? 

Style over substance.

When an employee is earmarked as "high potential" it's often times because they're operating as such a high level at their current job. They may look the part, say the right things, and put themselves in front of the right people it doesn't always mean that they're capable of doing more. Style over substance.

Lagunas goes on share some ways to assess performance and potential and then lays out some development strategies for both. Check out his full article here.

Clearly, managing and developing talent ain't easy. As HR pros, the least we can do is get some practical tools into the hands of our managers and leaders so they can start understanding the difference between potential and performance.

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