The Myth of Potential: 5 Ways To Develop Talent

In high school, I was a better than average athlete, but one of my closest friends was amazing. Most people didn’t know it, though. He was quiet, even shy, and spent most of his time either practicing or studying. Nothing he did off the court—not the way he acted, how he dressed, or who he talked to—shouted “jock!” But he handled a basketball as if he’d been born with one in each hand. According to our school’s coach, one of the best in the region, my friend had “real potential.” Our coach even talked about him going pro.

But what is potential? When most people say “potential,” what they really mean is “proven success.” After all, no one mentioned my friend’s potential when he was an awkward third grader learning how to dribble. It wasn’t until he already established himself as a local superstar that people started talking about his potential.

The truth is everyone has potential, and nearly every employee has some talent of great potential value. But developing that talent takes serious work, both from employees and their managers—just like the thousands of hours my friend put in every day after school, along with the encouragement and instruction from his dad and his coach.

Developing talent—that is, helping every employee reach their potential—should be a goal of every leader. In fact, at GE top executives spend as much as 40% of their time identifying and mentoring their replacements. Leaders at other companies would be wise to follow suit. Here’s how to start:

1. Give employees time to focus. With the frenetic pace of business, it’s easy to get lost in a sea of deadlines and shifting priorities. The best leaders encourage employees to spend time absorbed in a single project or area of focus—especially when it’s a stretch assignment that will challenge their abilities.

Some of the most innovative companies in the country put a priority on free or flexible time. For example, Google developers and engineers receive “20 percent time”—eight hours a week they can devote solely to projects of their choice. Likewise, Bell Labs—one of the biggest American innovators of all time—gave scientists and engineers the opportunity to spend years researching a single product.

2. Promote the value of learning. Leaders should be on a constant lookout for professional development opportunities. Taking time to focus on learning helps employees crystallize their goals and determine what skills and areas of growth are most important to them.

As I mentioned, General Electric is one example of a company that places a premium on promoting the value of professional development and learning. The company has a Chief Learning Officer and spends $1 billion a year in training its employees through the GE Global Learning initiative. That’s about $3,500 per year for each of their 290,000 employees.

3. Ask lots of questions. It’s no secret that leadership requires clear and effective communication. When it comes to developing talent, leaders should focus on the listening side of the communication equation. Find out what’s important to employees, what experience they have, where they see themselves in the future, and what excites them about the company.

Colin Powell nicely sums up the importance of listening and effective communication: “The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them.” The key in business is to allow them to solve their own problems by asking them questions and not just giving them the solutions. By doing this leaders will find they will have more creative time.

4. Give frequent, specific feedback. It’s far too easy for managers to only give feedback during performance reviews or to offer vague platitudes. The best mentors provide quality feedback that’s timely, genuine, and focused on desired behaviors that can be repeated. It’s also important to be positive and forgo any personal judgments. One of the greatest leaders in my life was my father. He did not wait 6 months to give me a performance review. I knew where I stood with him everyday.

5. Treat failure as an opportunity for improvement. Nobody likes failure, but everybody enjoys saving face. When employees fail, they’re often at their most vulnerable. And that’s a good thing. It means they’re open to receiving feedback, trying new approaches, and improving areas of weakness. Stay positive as you help your team members take advantage of these opportunities.

As Vince Lombardi said: “The difference between a successful person and others is not a lack of strength, not a lack of knowledge, but rather in a lack of will to learn from their mistakes.”

Remember: Everyone has potential, but that potential may remain hidden without skilled mentoring and effective leadership. Take time to help employees discover their talents, learn from failures, and build on their successes. It may just save your company some major recruitment dollars.

I hope this helps and for more information on our very effective Leadership and Sales Management training systems just click here and I will send you a PDF overview.

Best regards,

Jim Strutton, CEO
Accountability Plus, Inc.
[email protected]

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