Tag Archives: potential

Underperformance and Overperformance

From the Ask Tom mailbag:


I was curious about a study in IT that showed that while managers can see underperformance, they can’t see who is over-performing.


Actually, the results of the study may be correct, however, the conclusion may be flawed.

The results show that managers easily recognize or identify underperformance, but they do not as easily recognize or identify over-performance. The conclusion is that managers do not have the ability to recognize over-performance. I believe that to be false.

Managers do not recognize or identify over-performance because they do not focus on it. Managers allow the distractions of underperformance to dominate their vision and efforts.

It is simply a matter of focus. It is a conscious choice to focus on over-performance, and once that decision is made, the focus becomes quite natural. But it’s that choice that is difficult. It is too easy (unconscious) to see things wrong and too difficult to make the conscious choice to see things going right. -Tom

How to Identify High Potential in a Team Member

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

I just finished reading your book Hiring Talent. As I finished the book, I thought about my evaluation of high potential internal candidates. How do I know if a team member has a long enough time span of discretion to be able to do the job at the next level?

There are two places to play. One is to climb inside the head of the individual, the other is to focus on the work. The Head or The Work? Stay out of their head. Focus on the work.

Step 1 – Define the work at the next level. What are the problems that have to be solved at the next level? What are the decisions that have to be made at the next level?

Step 2 – Create a project that requires solving a problem at that level of work. Create a project that requires a decision at that level of work. It’s just a project, no promotions, no raises, no corner office, just a project.

Step 3 – Evaluate the project. Did the candidate execute as effectively as someone in the top half of the role or the bottom half of the role? And in that half, top, middle or bottom? After the project, you should be able to answer those two questions in about 5 seconds.

Top – Top
Top – Middle
Top – Bottom
Bottom – Top
Bottom – Middle
Bottom – Bottom

If there is potential, there is always evidence of potential. Do not make this decision based on a hunch, a feeling or an assumption. Make this decision (on potential) based on your judgement of evidence of potential.

Work output from a person who has potential is almost always error-free and on-time or early. -Tom

Role Mis-Match?

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

How do you deal (humanely) with someone who clearly is holding an S-IV role, but only appears to have S-III capability?

First, understand that this person is doing their best, and the mistake was made by the manager (I assume that is you) who promoted this person into that role without proper due diligence.

Now, what to do?

Pull out the role description and carefully examine those Key Result Areas that describe decision making and problem solving at S-IV (multi-system analysis and system integration). Using the role description, you can either manicure the role to reassign those accountabilities to someone else or choose to transfer the person to another role which better matches their capability.

The most important part of this managerial move is to understand, the discussion centers around the tasks, activities, decisions and problem solving. The discussion does NOT center around the stratum level capability of the person. This is an important nuance.

As the manager you have the following authority –

  • Determine the level of work in the role.
  • Determine the effectiveness of the person in the role.

As the manager, you do NOT have the authority –

  • To guess the stratum level of capability of the person.
  • To guess the potential capability of the person.

As the manager, you may have an intuitive judgment about a person’s capability or potential capability. You may take action related to that judgment ONLY by testing the candidate against effectiveness in the role (or testing the candidate with project work similar to the level of work in the role). It’s all about the work, not about a number.

Don’t Play Amateur Psychologist

From the Ask Tom mailbag – gleaned from a colleague’s mail list.

Do you have anything on Meta Competencies, if you have never heard of them, they’re personal indicators of future potential for higher up jobs. All part of our talent management project, which is based on “being good enough at your current job doesn’t mean you have potential to do a higher up job.”

This is a noble question which leads us astray for the answer. It is a sucker punch which assumes there is a psychological indicator for human potential. The question invites us (managers) to climb inside the head of a candidate or team member. But, once inside this head, most managers will find themselves on shaky ground. That psychology course in high school or college will abandon them. Few managers have degrees in psychology, advanced degrees or are certified to practice psychotherapy, yet here they are, inside the head of a candidate, looking for a “personal indicator of future potential.”

An alternate course, to answer this question, to identify “potential to do a higher up job” starts with how to define “a higher up job.” Talking about the job, talking about the work, now, most managers are on solid ground. Most managers can easily identify a “higher up job.” And that is where the answer is. Don’t try to climb inside the head of the candidate, focus on the work.

While we have an intuitive sense of a “higher up job,” until we can accurately define levels of work, identifying potential in a candidate will remain elusive, and indeed, allow psychologists to try to sell us all sorts of magical assessments. The instant we can accurately identify levels of work, we can get great clarity on human potential.

Focus on the work. Managers are experts on work. Let me borrow an insight from Lee Thayer. “The best measure of performance is performance.” Hint, this is NOT a circular reference.

The best measure of potential is evidence of potential (the original question). A person with potential will leave clues. All we have to do is see the clues. “Being good enough at your current job doesn’t mean you have potential to do a higher up job.” The answer is simple. Give the person a higher level of work. The best method to test a person’s potential is project work. Given a higher level of (project) work, the candidate will either effectively handle it, or not. The best measure of performance is performance.

Stop playing amateur psychologist and focus on the work. It’s all about the work.

What to Do With Untapped Potential

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

What action should we take if we have a person with Stratum IV capability in a Stratum III role?

First, I would ask, how do you know?  What behavior are you seeing?

You might see competence.  Competence with spare time left over.  Spare time to help other people.  Spare time to coach others.  Spare time to train others, teach others.  Spare time to participate in higher level planning.  It’s not such a bad thing.

The problem with having someone with S-IV capability in an S-III role is to determine if there is enough challenge in the role to gain their long term interest.  You might observe boredom with their day to day problem solving and decision making.  Boredom can create sloppiness, inattention to detail.  But boredom can also lead to effective delegation, innovation, efficiency initiatives.  I can hear the words.

“I am a bit bored with this task.  In what way can I make it more efficient?  In what way can I delegate this task to someone who might see this work as a challenge, to help them develop professionally?  So I can get on with more interesting work.”

Having someone with S-IV capability in an S-III role is an opportunity.  Just ask them.

Looking for Evidence of Potential in a Candidate

“So, it’s important not to HOPE someone has potential to step into a new role. You insist, that if a person has potential, there should be evidence of potential,” Monica refocused our conversation on her own role, as a manager, in the hiring process.

“If you know what to look for,” I replied.

“What do you look for? If someone has potential to move up to the next level of work, what evidence would I look for?”

“Look for behaviors. How would a team member, who has potential, behave?”

Monica stared in the space of the room. She looked up, then nodded. “Okay, if a person has potential to move up to the next level of work, their current work must be under control. Their current work must be complete, on time and meet the quality standard for that task.”


“And they must be curious. If a person has potential, they will ask questions about the next level of work. They will want to know not just how things are done, but why they get done, how tasks fit together, how work is handed off. If a person has potential, when they are confronted with a problem, they will be able to clearly state the problem, the cause of the problem and provide more than one alternate solution.”

“What else?” I prompted.

“A person, who has potential, will try something new, and if they fail, they will make an adjustment and try again, and if they fail again, they will adjust and try again. And they will get faster at failing and better at adjusting until they successfully complete the project.”

“Okay, stop. You have identified several behaviors that you would look for. Now, think. In what situations might we see those behaviors? What questions can we ask to find out if those behaviors exist? Here is a hint. Tell me about a time when…”
I just checked Amazon. Reduced price on Hiring Talent. Get the whole story about levels of work and how to interview for them.

Judging Potential in a Candidate

“So, I was considered to have potential, because I got to know the inspectors at the building department?” Monica chuckled.

“That was only the tip of the iceberg,” I said. “Do you remember, as a supervisor, you were playing around with the construction schedules. One group said they would get their work done in so many days, and the next group needed that many days. And most of our projects were always coming in late.”

“Yes,” Monica nodded. “It was an interesting experiment. Everyone thought I was nuts until I brought my project in ahead of schedule. That never happens in construction.”

“And you did it without raising your voice,” I observed.

“It was funny,” she explained. “The framers said they needed three weeks, the electrical guys said they needed one week and the plumbers said they needed two weeks, and that was just for the rough-in. Then the sheetrock crew wanted a week, the trim guys wanted a week for the finish work. Then the electrical guys wanted another week for their punch list and the plumbers another week to set all the fixtures. That’s ten weeks. And I only had seven weeks for that phase of the project.”

“And do you remember what you did to accelerate the project?”

“It was easy really. I knew everyone was padding their time budgets. I call it a buffer. I asked each crew to divide their time budget into the working part and the buffer part. I mean, there are legitimate things that happen to delay projects, that’s why they build in buffers. So, every team gave me their work time budget and their buffer time budget. Each group had almost 40 percent of their time in buffers and none wanted to budge. Total work time was six weeks, total buffer time was four weeks. I told each crew that we were preserving their buffer time, but moving all buffers to the end of the project, scheduling only for work time. One thing I know, if you give a crew ten days, six days work and four days buffer, it will take them ten days to finish. Work expands to the time allotted. But if you give that same crew six days to work, they will finish in six days. So, if there was a legitimate delay, I gave them back one of their buffer days from the end of the project. Indeed, there were some delays and over the course of this phase of the project, we used an entire week of buffer. But, at the end of seven weeks, we came in on time with three weeks of buffer left over.”

“So, when we considered that you had potential to be a manager,” I explained, “we based our judgment on evidence, not hope.”

How to See Evidence of Potential in an Interview

“If you are not going to let me hope,” Monica protested, “then explain to me how I got this job? When I was promoted to manager, I had never been a manager before. If the interview had only centered around my prior role as a supervisor, then how did the interviewer make the judgment that I had the potential to be a manager?”

“Do you think the interviewer only had hope for you in this manager role?” I asked. “Monica, I watched you, in your role as a supervisor for three years. I sat in on the debriefing after you were interviewed for your current role as a manager. Do you think that decision was made based on hope?”

“Not if you were in the room,” Monica admitted. “But, then how did you know I had the potential to be a manager if I had never been a manager before?”

“Okay, let’s step through some questions. As a supervisor, do you think you were operating as effectively as someone in the top half of a supervisor’s role or the bottom half?”

Monica smiled politely, nodding, “Top.”

“And in the top half, were you operating as effectively as someone in the top third, middle third or bottom third?”

Monica continued to shake her head. “Top,” she repeated.

“What is the evidence for that?” I pressed.

“You always want evidence,” Monica replied. “My projects always came in on time, within the specs from the customer and always within budget.”

“And why did your projects always come in on time? Did you always get the easy projects or were there problems?”

“There are always problems, but you know, 90 percent of the obstacles are predictable. For example, permits are always a problem. And permits are outside my control, it’s a government agency that processes the permits. But I took the time to get to know the inspectors down at the building department. I know it is not part of my job description and sometimes they are not the easiest people to get acquainted with, but I also know it’s important.”

“So, you took the time to go beyond prescribed duties in your role as a supervisor. You anticipated obstacles that might get in the way and created alternate paths, to solve problems that might occur,” I recounted.

“Well, you know, if you don’t have a relationship with the building inspectors, then you don’t know what criteria they are using to get your project approved. And if you don’t know what they are looking for, your project can get stuck. It’s easy to blame it on the building department, but if your project is 18 months in scope, thirty days might mean the difference between an on-time finish or having to pay liquidated damages for coming in late. There is a lot of risk.”

“So, when we decided that you had the potential to be a manager, it is because we could see evidence of that potential beyond your role as a supervisor.”

How to Interview for Potential

“I want to hire this person. Of all the candidates I have talked with, they seem to show the most promise,” Monica explained.

“So, you haven’t made up your mind?” I asked.

“No, I said I want to hire this person,” she clarified.

“Are you basing your decision on evidence? You sound uncertain.”

“You are right. The level of work in their previous job is short of the level of work we need in this position. But it might be that she was just underemployed,” Monica thought out loud.

“So, far, you are basing your decision on a promise and a maybe,” I clarified.

“Yeah, but how do you know? How do you know whether or not she has the potential?”

“I asked you if you were basing your decision on evidence. Is there evidence of potential? Look, you spent a great deal of time properly writing the role description. You carefully organized the tasks into Key Result Areas. In each Key Result Area, you defined the level of work. In your interview, you either establish evidence in the level of work or you don’t.”

“You mean I can’t hope?”

Greatest Evidence of Potential in a Team Member

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Is there any way to determine the long term potential of someone early in their career? Based on your workshop, I assume the answer is “no,” although I am hoping the answer is “yes.”


Your assumption is correct, a manager’s pursuit of the crystal ball related to a person’s potential is misguided. But your interest in long term potential is absolutely necessary for every manager-once-removed. While the manager is most often focused on productivity, the manager-once-removed must spend time thinking about the long term health of the entire team, and that includes the potential in individual players.

Stephen Clement taught me to remember, “It’s all about the work.” Focus on the work. If you want to see a team member’s potential, look at their work. Work output related to the task assignment will reveal hard evidence of potential.

Does the team member exhibit any of these characteristics.

  • All work is completed on time and within the quality spec of the task?
  • The team member appears to take minor problems and challenges in stride?
  • The team member recognizes larger problems quickly and reports possible solutions along with the problem?
  • The team member appropriately experiments with task elements and work sequence that produces effective changes in processes?
  • The team member volunteers for tasks beyond their current role?
  • The team member remains appropriately optimistic in the face of minor setbacks of task difficulty, and describes the learning that occurs from a failed task?

The greatest evidence of potential is evidence of potential.