Spotting Potential for Your Utility

Managers who put employees in roles that fit their strengths lead more successfully.

Spotting Potential for Your Utility

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When I needed someone to head the new crew, I immediately thought of you, Tom. You learn quickly, you work hard and you’re good at bringing a team together. These next few months are going to be a heavy lift, and I can’t think of anyone else better suited to the task.

Like gardeners planting seeds, people who spot potential can help others produce results they may never have imagined for themselves. By following a few steps, anyone can learn to see the future success in others.

1. Start with strengths

Pay attention to what’s special. Everyone has talents, and great potential spotters zero in on those gifts. Is someone organized, great with people or mechanically inclined?

2. Look in less obvious areas

Once you’ve identified the visible strengths, start looking in less obvious places. You may uncover a hidden talent. An average performer may become exceptional with a little help from the power of suggestion.  

3. Stick with sincerity

It’s one thing to recognize a spark before you see it. It’s another to tell people they’re good at something when there is significant evidence to the contrary. Most people can spot insincerity from a mile away, so it’s important to remain sincere.

4. Identify opportunities

In addition to recognizing possibility, great potential spotters are on the lookout for the places where others can shine. They know opportunities come in all shapes and sizes: Sometimes the opportunity is a task or project. Other times it’s a new position or some other responsibility.

5. Bring the person and the opportunity together in the right place

Great potential spotters understand not only who and what to pair, but how to introduce the opportunity. Sometimes these conversations are casual, and other times they are formal meetings. The type of communication largely depends on the person and the task. And because every circumstance is different, it’s important to be deliberate. If the task is part of routine work, a short conversation held in public may be appropriate. Conversely, when presenting a large project or new position, a formal meeting might be a better option.

6. Connect what and why

Potential spotters follow a formula. They recognize a person’s strength, how it fits with the opportunity and why the match makes sense. For example: 

Ben, I’ve been watching you work. You know how to follow the standard operating procedure, and now I think you’re ready to increase your speed. You’re diligent in your approach to what you do, and your attitude is certainly positive. I’d like to get you some additional time on the lining crew this week. I know you could be one of our top performers with some practice.

7. Prepare for a range of reactions

People react to these discussions of their potential in a range of ways. Some embrace what they’re told and look forward to tackling whatever opportunity the spotter highlights. Others get bogged down in self-doubt and require additional reassurance. And from time to time, the spotter is met with rejection when the person with the potential does not immediately — or ever — embrace the opportunity. A good potential spotter is prepared for any of these outcomes.

8. Set the stage for success

Sometimes people with great potential fail because of factors that have nothing to do with the person or the opportunity. Exceptional managers keep this in mind. And to the extent they can, they pave the way for success with training, exposure to information, time to practice new skills and other appropriate resources.

9. Embrace all results

When people meet with success, potential spotters acknowledge it, and they’re well on their way toward finding additional opportunities to build on what’s been achieved. On the other hand, when people and opportunities don’t come together well, a good manager takes the situation in stride and find other avenues for people to thrive.

10. Make time for spotting

Potential-spotting can happen organically, but it can happen more often when you set aside time to think about it. Scheduling time to observe your team in action can yield great results. Great potential is in everyone, and when it’s unleashed it compounds. Success builds success.

Imagine if everyone in your company realized even half of his or her potential. What could people achieve alone and together? Probably more than they do now. So, whose potential do you need to spot today? F

Kate Zabriskie is the president of Business Training Works, a Maryland-based talent development firm. For more information, visit


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