Coaching v. Upgrading Talent

One of the essential paradoxes of leadership is that a leader is expected to both be able to coach and develop their people, and at the same time to make tough decisions about talent, and upgrade when needed. How do you know when to support and develop, and when to cut your losses and find someone else? The answer is easy if the person doesn?t have core skills: technical ability, basic interpersonal skills, or integrity, trust and respect. But barring those, how does a leader know how to proceed? How much energy and time should you devote to a direct report? When should you mentor someone, when should you offer them developmental opportunities? The answer is both extraordinarily complex, and remarkably simple. Essentially, to coach or mentor or develop someone, you have to believe the person has potential.


Senior managers are responsible for the determination of potential. For a new leader, quickly evaluating the workability, capability and potential of one?s team is critical to success: Can I work with this person? Can I count on this person to deliver what we need to accomplish this year? And can I count on this person to help take our organization where it needs to go in the next two to three years? The first is related to your ability to deal with their degree of diversity, and their willingness to accept you as their leader, which I will talk about another time. If you underestimate their capability, you will struggle to achieve your quick wins because they can?t do the work you need them to do today. But how do you know if they are the right people for the future? If you underestimate their potential, you may hit your early wins but are unlikely to reach your one-year targets, and are way off track for hitting three-year objectives.

When is it potential?

What do people look for when they look for potential? The best leaders look for precursors to the skills the person needs two levels above where he or she is now. These precursors to leadership show up in the following questions:

  • Does he think about issues outside his remit?
  • Can an operations manager integrate data from the marketing group and recommend a solution that meets customer needs?
  • Is she willing to support another manager in a cross-functional team that is struggling with an important cross-business issue?
  • Do they consider long-term people issues when executing a business strategy?
  • Does he take 100% accountability for dealing with problems and finding solutions?
  • Does she take well-considered risks that will help the business?
  • Can he delegate responsibility and still take ownership of the result?

When is it something else?

We are all vulnerable to making mistakes in people judgments ? we are, after all, human. But the indications that someone does not have potential that we can take as signs of potential, include:

  • Does she agree with me all the time?
  • Will he avoid taking a stand until he knows which way you are leaning?
  • Do you ever detect him taking personal credit for work instead of crediting his team?
  • Do you find her giving explanations or rationalizations for problems rather than finding solutions?
  • Does he “stick to his knitting” even if he does an above-expectations job, after you have encouraged him to broaden his perspective?

For some people, there is no greater stress than the burden of a great potential. It is important for a leader to be able to identify those people who not only do a great job in their current role, but have the kernels of capability for two roles forward. Those are the people to whom you should devote your energy, and who you should help develop as the next leaders of the team.

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