How do we move from People performance to People potential culture?

Sachin Mengi
Unboxing Product Management
8 min readAug 24, 2018

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Performance v/s potential

In my decade long career, I have come across incidents of internal biases that interfere while dealing with people who don’t perform per the expectations from their role. These biases distort and disrupt objective contemplation of a person’s abilities and we often weigh down their past contributions by their present demeanor.

Allow me to quote some common instances that you might have experienced- a new recruit who is hired for a senior role from another organization based on excellent past performance, a fellow developer promoted to lead the team on the basis of her years of experience in the organization.

Now, as an organization, we want these people to be at their best efficiency level, always. So much so that we fail to see what’s going on in their life or what has been impeding their progress. We watch them closely, collect the numbers and on the judgement day (aka 1:1s), we drop the bomb- “your performance has shown a major drop since the last quarter. What do you think went wrong?”.

I hate to say this but this is how most conversations at work start; with a pre-loaded gun. Shouldn’t something like this be the starting point of the conversation- “I have been feeling concerned about you lately. Is there a way I can help?”

All we think about is generating revenue and getting more clients, and in that rut, talks about developing a person take a backseat. I do not mean to say that revenue should take a backseat instead, but the question that I want to ask is-

Who should own the people, their performance and their growth?

Who should worry about their aspirations, their career track and help them discover their potential?

So, here’s a suggestion- how about we make a cultural shift and move from managing performance to maximizing potential?

First, let me introduce you to the difference between potential and performance.

Potential v/s performance

“Potential” and “Performance” are two distinct dimensions that should be considered while scrutinizing a person for a particular role.

Consider this example- You are hiring for a senior managerial role. In one scenario, you look for promoting a team member from a junior position who is smart, hardworking, credible, versatile, a man of steel who knows how to sail through rough waters, one who has proven her potential in the past. So you promote that person only to realize that she was ill-prepared to handle the managerial role (very commonly known as Peter Principle). What went wrong?

In another scenario, you hire a person from outside your organization based on her intellect and people skills. Although the person lacks industry experience but she quickly ascends to handle team and becomes crucial to the team’s success. What went right?

In the first case, the person had potential, but failed to perform. Maybe, because leadership isn’t for everyone. In the latter case, the person outperformed team’s expectations. Maybe, because he/she was an empathetic leader with great people skills.

So, here’s what I want to say- there is a major difference between potential and performance. Just as it is advisable to not judge a book by its cover; similarly, don’t judge people by their years of experience or lack of knowledge.

To assess performance in a particular role, you first need to pay attention to their inclination to be in that role. And then, you coach them, nurture them, provide mentors to hone their skills to see if they are suitable to be in that role.

How do we move from People performance to People potential culture?

Using the 9-Box model.

The 9-box model is an incredibly helpful tool and is widely used for performance and potential planning and development. It can be used as a self assessment tool or by a mentor to understand their team’s potential.

The best part about this is that it very well categorizes every possibility that you might encounter in your organization. Let’s take them one-by-one.

Under performer

An under-performer is a person with low potential and low performance. This might be a case of wrong hiring or mistimed promotion. You need to address them quickly, so that they do not become a burden on your team.

Dilemma

A person who is still exploring his/her potential and as a result is not able to perform per expectations. Here, a right intervention to understand the dilemma can help. You can offer to help the person discover his/her interests and put them in a job role that best fits those interests.

Enigma

An enigmatic person is full of potential but is stuck with ambiguity in the current job role. The reason could be either because they do not possess the required skill set for the job or they lack interest in learning new skills. This should be handled with utmost sincerity and should be followed up by discussing other opportunities with the team member. You can start by identifying what they are interested in and where they would like to be.

Growth Employee

Moderate performing but has high-potential. A growth employee exhibits a lot of potential but isn’t a master-blaster performer. He/she is either struggling with the work environment or with the teammates. You can help them develop time management/personal development skills and map out their career path so that they feel motivated to do work.

Core Employee

A core employee is a solid talent. If you are a people-first organization, chances are most of your teammates will fall into this category. Core employees meet their work expectations, get the job done on time, and have clarity around work. They see themselves to be a part of the ecosystem. With core employees, you need to help them set clear goals which align with organizational growth and gauge their performance to use their potential.

Effective

A moderate performing person with low potential. They are hardworking but have limited exposure to challenging tasks. Or, they are lacking working with impressive role models who can guide them in a better way. You might try changing their mentors/leaders. Or, work upon developing their skills.

Trusted Professional

A high performance, low potential person. You can always bet on them for any work. They are dependable and highly reliable when it comes to the quality of work and timelines. They perform good in mentorship roles and are unlikely to take challenging tasks. The best way to keep up with them is to keep them motivated and keep them updated with new trends in their area of interest.

High Impact Performer

They are the star-performers. A high-performance person with moderate potential is like a bomb waiting to explode. Oh well! Not in the literal sense. They are motivated to do their job and they keep up with it phenomenally well. Make sure you allocate enough resources to their development, retention and development.

Future Leader

A future leader has vision and clarity on why, what and how to do the next big thing. High performers with high potential should be challenged and rewarded so their engagement with the organization doesn’t drop. They should be mentored and prepared for taking up leadership position/promotion in future.

So, next time you come across a situation where someone is not able to perform, use the 9 box grid to place the person. Empathize and intervene constructively for them to move up a box.

Quite overwhelming to take it all in one go? Let me quote a few real life examples where you can use the 9-Box model to help your team members.

Smith has recently joined a 15 member team. After a great onboarding into the team, your expectations are high from him. Three months down the line, you notice that he is not able to perform well. This goes on for sometime, his body language speaks of his low engagement. You have already started denying him complex work because you feel he is already looking for a new job.

I would place Smith in ‘Dilemma’. He was not able to bond with his team members. He had no crucial role to play in the product. He felt like he has been sidelined because he is a new hire. He wanted to make a difference but was not able to.

Solution: Try changing his role and give him defined responsibilities. Probably, a client facing role where he feels more responsible for his deliverables and can also make a difference to overall product quality. With right intervention methods, you can make Smith a core employee.

Rachel has been in the organization for 5 years and has grown from a developer to a product manager. She has good network within the organization. She is performing per expectations from her role, however she is unable to find her to way to grow further and feels stuck.

I would place Rachel in ‘Effective’. She is performing well but her potential has been limited. She finds it difficult to challenge the status quo, bring new ideas and bring creativity to her work. She needs to see different perspectives to open up her mind.

Solution: You can suggest her to interact with people from other verticals, learn how things run differently in other teams. This would help her to elevate her knowledge and expand her horizon of thoughts to see different approaches to work. If everything works well, you can expect her to move to take on a role of ‘High Impact performer’.

Jacob has been recently promoted as a Technical Lead and expectations around his performance have changed dramatically. Not only he is expected to be a rockstar developer, he is also expected to be a good leader. He is struggling to meet the new expectations and attributes it to lack of clarity provided. Let’s place Jacob in ‘Enigma’.

Solution: So much untapped potential! Jacob had earned his promotion, how could he suddenly become a low performer? Here is a possible reason- He lost clarity over what people are expecting from him and neither his mentor nor he himself took efforts to clear that confusion around roles. What could have been done better? Better communication, clear expectation. For a person making a transition from a developer to a technical lead, it is important to coach him so that he is well versed with what responsibilities come with the new role. Only then you can expect him to gradually move from ‘Enigma’ to ‘Growth Employee’.

I really wish organizations help more people see their potential and not fret over performance.

Because performance is about accomplishing a task, whereas potential is about making that journey to discover your capabilities.

Hope it helps.

I wrote this blog for our Medium Publication- Unboxing Product Management. The publication is a weekly column by leaders of Quovantis to share their learning and knowledge with the world. If you liked reading the blog, clap your heart out and help others find it.

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