4 Strategies to Discern Employees’ Potential

To understand the potential of employees to contribute to the future success of the business, employers focus predominately on reviewing and rating their past performance, according to Brandon Hall Group research. But even the current best performer may not be the best employee for the future. 

Only 6% of organizations believe their performance evaluation processes are an accurate predictor of an individual’s future potential, according to our study, How Do You Predict Future Performance? That means that talent organizations identify as having high potential may not have the potential to succeed. 

Developing employees must go beyond rating performance and traditional training practices. It starts with managers and employees connecting to discuss and understand employees’ current state and what the employees want in the future. 

Our research shows, for example, that organizations reporting increased customer satisfaction year over year are: 

  • 73% more likely to frequently discuss learning and training opportunities
  • 64% more likely to regularly discuss employees’ general well-being
  • 50% more likely to frequently discuss future career opportunities
  • 44% more likely to recognize employees’ accomplishments

That does not mean current performance should not be discussed; organizations experiencing increased customer satisfaction are also 22% more likely to frequently discuss current performance with employees. It’s not that performance shouldn’t be a consideration for career development; it just can’t be the only or dominant one.

The performance management processes used by most organizations focus on what employees have done, not what they can do. There is a huge disconnect between the importance organizations place on understanding potential and their effectiveness in doing so. 

 The research showed that organizations understand the value of deeper exploration of employees’ potential. It’s just that their processes don’t often enable it. Here are valuable questions to ask employees, according to our research: 

High-Value Questions to Ask Employees to Explore Development and Potential 

Based on the research study, How Do You Predict Future Performance?, and subsequent interviews, here are four strategies to help organizations better understand employees’ development potential. 

Increase and Improve Coaching  You are probably tired of hearing that managers must be better coaches but it’s critical for many reasons. One is that it requires managers to ask questions rather than give direction. This drives employees to be reflective and consider their performance, development, aspirations and willingness to improve. Having answers to those types of questions helps managers understand how engaged employees are and their potential for development beyond their current roles. 

Provide More Exposure to New Responsibilities and Assignments  This is a powerful strategy because it demonstrates interest in employees’ development, enables them to envision different roles and helps managers see employees’ capabilities. Managers learn about employees; if there is disinterest in new opportunities, that could diminish their potential (despite their performance) and if the employees excel or show promise, that could improve their potential. Plus, work on action learning projects or on a team, task-force or committee can get additional work done beyond the employees’ current roles. 

Hold More Frequent Career Discussions  Our research shows organizations are highly concerned about talent retention. And yet, only 9% say that career discussions are held more than twice a year. 

This phenomenon is related to learning that is traditionally seen as an event rather than ongoing. If learning is offered just periodically, it is logical that career advancement is also a relatively infrequent discussion. The fact is, learning must be ongoing and employees should continuously think about their lives and their careers. If managers don’t realize that and fail to regularly connect with employees about their futures with the organization, employers will look elsewhere. 

Organizations often respond by saying they expect employees to take ownership of their careers. That’s a cop-out because, in the end, the organization will decide the paths employees’ careers take, so the employer must get the conversations started (and keep them going). After that — armed with the right tools — employees can take responsibility. That does not mean, however, that managers should not be active partners. 

Recognize Employees More Often  More than 85% of organizations in our research studies say recognizing meaningful contributions is important but less than half say they do it effectively. 

Consistent recognition of meaningful contributions has many benefits, including making employees feel valued and building a sense of belonging. That often leads to an interest in growing with the organization and developing their capabilities. If it doesn’t, that may diminish those employees’ potential. If it does, that shows higher potential. Either way, employers learn something about employees when they regularly recognize meaningful contributions. It’s also the right thing to do. 

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Mike Cooke



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Mike Cooke

Chief Executive Officer of Brandon Hall Group Mike Cooke Prior to joining Brandon Hall Group, Mike Cooke was the Chief Executive Officer and co-founder of AC Growth. Mike held leadership and executive positions for the majority of his career, at which he was responsible for steering sales and marketing teams to drive results and profitability. His background includes more than 15 years of experience in sales, marketing, management, and operations in the research, consulting, software and technology industries. Mike has extensive experience in sales, marketing and management having worked for several early high-growth emerging businesses and has implemented technology systems to support various critical sales, finance, marketing and client service functions. He is especially skilled in organizing the sales and service strategy to fully support a company’s growth strategy. The concept of growth was an absolute to Mike and a motivator in starting AC Growth, in order to help organizations achieve research driven results. Most recently, Mike was the VP and General Manager of Field Operations at Bersin & Associates, a global analyst and consulting services firm focused on all areas of enterprise learning, talent management and talent acquisition. Tasked with leading the company’s global expansion, Mike led all sales operations worldwide. During Mike’s tenure, the company has grown into a multi-national firm, conducting business in over 45 countries with over 4,500 multi-national organizations. Mike started his career at MicroVideo Learning Systems in 1992, eventually holding a senior management position and leading all corporate sales before founding Dynamic Minds. Mike was CEO and Co-Founder of Dynamic Minds, a custom developer of software programs, working with clients like Goldman Sachs, Prentice Hall, McGraw Hill and Merrill Lynch. Also, Mike worked for Oddcast, a leading provider of customer experience and marketing solutions, where he held a senior management position leading the company into new markets across various industries. Mike also serves on the Advisory Board for Carbon Solutions America, an independent sustainability consulting and carbon management firm that specializes in the design and implementation of greenhouse reduction and sustainability plans as well as managing the generation of carbon and renewal energy and energy efficiency credits. Mike attended University of Phoenix, studying Business Administration and Finance. He has also completed executive training at the Chicago Graduate School of Business in Chicago, IL.