Factors Affecting Potential

Whichever model of potential you choose to adopt and work with, the following factors affecting potential should be taken into account in some way.

1. Cognitive Ability (IQ)

A broad general definition of cognitive ability is, “A general mental ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, learn quickly and learn from experience.” These abilities are clearly important to success in any corporate culture working within an ideas or knowledge economy. However, while the cognitive ability is a key factor affecting one’s potential, it is not the only factor For decades, IQ tests were considered the most accurate way to measure intelligence, initially with some feasibility.

For example, research has repeatedly shown that cognitive ability influences virtually all aspects of work performance and potential (for example, see Ones et al., 2010), with a significant correlation occurring between what is known as General Mental Ability and performance. The more complex the job, the more important one’s level of GMA.

Research suggests that we need to consider both cognitive ability and personality in order to accurately assess potential (see Schmitt, 2015 for review).

2. Personality

Potential is not just about one’s intellectual capacities. Clearly, personality also plays a vital role. Certain personality traits can predict leadership potential, including the following:

  1. Being well-adjusted: Senior positions are extremely demanding and stressful, therefore leaders need to be resilient to succeed. Emotionally stable people handle stress better, are more resilient and are less prone to anxiety, depression and neuroses. Being well-adjusted is also a marker of high emotional intelligence.
  2. Quality of conscientiousness: Leaders need to be self-disciplined, organised, reliable and responsive. High-fliers tend to be hard working, reliable and ambitious.
  3. Open and curious: Showing an interest in how things work, looking for opportunities to experiment, and being open and curious – interpersonally and towards new experiences, thoughts and challenges – are key personality traits to consider when assessing leadership potential.
  4. Socialised extroverts: Social skills are increasingly considered to be vital. Many people are introverts who have trained themselves to be like extroverts. This demonstrates that these skills are learnable.
  5. Agreeableness: Leaders need to be clear and assertive and able to separate work performance from personal relationships. They stand up for their own values and for their company’s interests, confronting interpersonal and performance difficulties as they arise. (Adapted from CRF, 2016; MacRae & Furnham, 2014)

3. Performance and readiness

It has been said that solid performance is the price of entry to the conversation about potential. Performance looks at what someone has achieved in the past or is currently achieving. It depends on context: the situation, environment, responsibilities and stakeholder relationships that someone works within today.

Case study: Compare Maxine, Sarah and Josh

Maxine, for example, is a top performer in her current role but she has reached the upper limits of what she is able to achieve. Her potential has been almost completely developed and she is performing highly because the challenges she faces and the roles she takes up are consistent. If she were promoted into a more senior position, Maxine would likely not thrive; faced with significantly new and different challenges, and lacking the drive or ambition, which many studies have found is a requisite aspect of potential, she would struggle. Although labelled as a HiPo (a High Potential candidate) in her current context, both she and her colleagues would likely find that in a more ambiguous, volatile or challenging situation, she would not be seen this way at all.

In contrast, however, is Sarah, who currently works two levels below Maxine. Sarah’s performance is consistently solid but not as obviously exceptional as Maxine’s; she’s younger, newer to the organisation and less experienced. Many companies would understandably overlook Sarah in favour of promoting someone like Maxine. This is where potential and performance get confused. The reality is that Sarah actually has a lot of unexpressed potential; it is lying dormant, so to speak, largely because Sarah finds herself in a role or organisational culture that isn’t suited to her key strengths and skills and has not yet been supported to develop. Her natural aptitude for leadership, however, is clear, and given new challenges, opportunities and a slightly different role, Sarah would demonstrate a lot of potential and ability to develop, whereas Maxine’s environment, situation and relationships are optimal and have made the most of her skills and competencies. Given a new challenge and increased responsibility, Maxine would begin to flounder.

Then there is a third consideration: readiness. Like Sarah, Josh has a lot of undeveloped potentials, particularly leadership potential. He is ambitious, visionary and naturally inspires those who work with him. However, at this moment in time, he and his line manager have agreed that he is not ready to be promoted; he is dealing with some extremely stressful personal challenges which are likely to demand a lot from him over the next twelve months. His organisation has identified him as having a lot of potentials and has invited him to open the conversation up again whenever he feels ready. Because he is highly adaptable, there is not a sense of panic about fitting him into one role right now. Other people might not feel ready for different reasons, such as wanting to complete a current project or feeling that they have not done or learned all that they can within their current role. Readiness is an essential factor to consider when assessing and developing potential.

4. Motivation

Whether you call it motivation, drive or ambition, the simple truth is that leaders do not get to the top unless they are highly motivated to achieve work and career goals. Writing for Harvard Business Review, authors Chamorro-Premuzik, Adler and Kaiser write that “ability and social skill may be considered talent, but the potential is talent multiplied by drive” (2017).

Having a strong work ethic and an ability to remain somewhat dissatisfied with one’s achievements and holding oneself accountable results in people who are more likely to:

  • have a clear direction and set realistic goals
  • bounce back from setbacks
  • learn from mistakes.

Motivation can be assessed by standardised tests, and it can be identified behaviourally, but the key measure is not what an individual says about their ambitions but what they actually do to achieve them. Measuring motivation is hard, so many organisations review an individual’s track record in order to take references to determine their drive to succeed.

5. Emotional Intelligence (EQ)

Leadership is highly relational and is, therefore, an “emotion-laden process” (George, 2000). Skilful management of followers’ feelings are a critical leadership function (Humphrey, 2008), and leaders’ own emotional regulation and associated behaviours have been found to profoundly influence followers’ emotional reactions and job performance (McColl-Kennedy & Anderson, 2002).

Given this, EQ can be considered to be a crucial aspect of the leadership process; measuring EQ could differentiate between a high performing and an average leader. Some research even suggests that EQ explains up to 90% of the difference between senior-level leaders (high performers) and their average-performing counterparts (Goleman, 2000).

6. Leadership skills

The ability to advance in one’s own career does not guarantee that an individual has the capability to make a crucial contribution to the organisation – particularly when it comes to inspiring, influencing and leading others. Some estimates suggest that at least half of all leaders cannot effectively engage their people. Rather than turning a B-team into the A-team, sadly, as Chamorro-Premuzic, Adler and Kaiser write in Harvard Business Review, “There is no shortage of leaders who turn A-players into a B-team” (2017).

Leadership skills or abilities are therefore a key factor that affects the degree to which someone is able to fulfil their own potential and unleash it in others. One could be the most intelligent and motivated person in the world, but if one is unable to effectively lead others and does not have the capacity to learn how to do so, one’s overall potential will be limited. Some measure of the qualities associated with leadership should be present in any potential mode

7. Other factors

Other factors that impact potential include one’s learning agility – the willingness and ability to learn from experience and subsequently apply that learning to perform successfully under new first-time conditions; competencies (one of the most widely used measures of potential). These have the advantage of being easier for people to “digest” but there are numerous issues with working with this factor alone. For example, they can suggest a ‘one size fits all’ approach and are sometimes pulled out of thin air rather than being grounded in research (CRF, 2014, pg. 18).

Values and culture fit are being increasingly recognised as highly important factors – within one organisation, someone may appear not to be high potential, but given a different context, mission or culture, they may thrive. Finally, communication skills are another vitally important area, because so much of our working lives is dominated by communication nowadays.

Read more: You are losing one-third of your most valuable asset: people’s potential

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