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Why Low Performers Could Have the Highest Leadership Potential

Managers tend to fast-track for leadership promotions those employees who they already see as high-performers, but this course may leave many candidates with leadership potential on the sidelines. According to Deloitte’s Global Human Capital Trends 2015 survey, 86 percent of respondents said leadership was the top challenge, but only six percent said their pipelines were ready. That kind of dichotomy indicates a change is needed in leadership development.

For today’s emerging employee cohort that tends to focus on working to live rather than living to work, that old calculus that long hours + great sacrifice = leadership potential is outdated. “High-potential but low-performing employees, on the other hand, are easily mistaken for bad hires. But often they’re either in the wrong job, have a lousy manager, or just haven’t been set up to succeed,” FastCompany notes. Managers have historically misunderstood how to develop the next generation of leaders. If just one of those factors were corrected, some employees would flourish and reach their potential.

Whereas low-potential employees are typically siloed into middle management positions, Adam Miller, founder of a talent management software company, recommends leaders take a chance on these workers by providing testing situations to determine if they truly have high leadership potential. Increase not only responsibilities, but push them out of their comfort zones without overburdening them. “What you’re really doing is assessing whether or not they can juggle multiple projects, work with new people in the organization, manage their time when they suddenly have a lot less of it, communicate effectively and consistently, and ramp up quickly to handle an unfamiliar situation,” he explains. “If they succeed, make it official. Promote them out of their old job and into a new one.”

Research conducted by Jack Zenger indicates truly high potential employees will typically exhibit at least three of 10 core competencies:

  1. Maintaining a strategic perspective, direction and clarity
  2. Inspiring and motivating colleagues
  3. Focusing on delivering excellent results
  4. Emphasizing collaboration and teamwork
  5. Acting as a role model in terms of ethics and values
  6. Understanding how business works
  7. Embracing change
  8. Taking risks and innovating
  9. Communicating in a way that inspires others to take action
  10. Coaching others

If a supposed low potential employee actually does show he or she has the capacity for greater things at your company, then you should have the managerial courage to promote that person even if you run the risk of upsetting other employees, particularly those who consider themselves promotable but did not show these skills when put to the test.

Once leadership has identified the right employees to put on the promotion track, it is management’s responsibility to provide an environment that leverages and reinforces strengths, all the while providing mentoring and training. “The most effective managers help those who have the potential to realize it and help them build a foundation for continual success.”