Reach your full potential

How can you ensure you reach your full potential? How do you know when you have reached that full potential? How to you encourage and allow your team-members to reach their full potential?

Let’s start by examining why most people do not reach their full potential and Jon Acuff , author and speaker, answers it like this:

The most common trap is fear. I’ve never met a 20 year old or a 50 year old who says, “I’ve never had a single passion, dream, hope or desire.” We all have them, but a lot of us give in to fear as soon as we get close to them. The reason is that fear only gets loud when you do things that matter. Fear never bothers you if you’re average but the second you dare to be more than ordinary, fear awakens.

full potential road sign illustration designThe trouble with many of the development programs in companies is that they work on the basis of performance appraisals and assessed developmental needs. Performance appraisals are made by individuals with their own views and biases and usually take into account current performance against current or targeted company, department or team goals. Although most companies do career planning and succession planning it fails to adequately capture your full potential if it stays on the narrow path of current performance, estimated potential as measured by individuals above you and achieved goals. Larger companies have a tendency to actually fall into the trap of the Peter Principle or Dilbert principle, both resulting in the promotion of people to the highest levels of companies and being incompetent at those positions.

Let me be clear, there is a need for the traditional paper-flow towards the end of the year with talent reviews, performance appraisals, career development, estimated personal potential assessment and so more but also be realistic, none of these tools got Bill Gates, Steve Jobs or Warren Buffett to where they ended up.

To reach your full potential you will need to work at it yourself and have an internal drive to get there.

  • Get feedback, know yourself.
  • Be brave
  • Get help
  • Follow a process
  • Keep learning

Many people plan from the perspective of who they want to be and get frustrated by the lack of progress and lack of accomplishment. Try starting from who you are rather than from who you want to be. If you start running you don’t want to mirror the training schedule from a Kenyan runner when you are a former couch potato. Realize who you are, what your unique position is and work from that basis on your personal unique path.

Don’t be afraid of the “man behind the curtain”. Be brave, know that whatever will come of it, you will have the satisfaction that you have tried it and even if it goes horribly wrong, you won’t have to ponder the rest of your life how it would have been if you had acted or, even worse, blame yourself the remainder of your life for missed opportunities.

Ask help, no athlete has ever become a World champion or Olympic champion without a coach, so why should you? Developing a plan, charting out a career path or development track, it all helps to get to  your full potential.

Opportunities come and go, reaching your full potential is more a factor of following a process than acting on this particular opportunity right now. Some athletes will forego an opportunity to compete in the world-cup to be better prepared for the Olympics. However you decide, ensure you plan ahead and follow the path so you don’t get distracted by the occasional setbacks and stumbling blocks.

Once you have reached a certain level, you will be able to see the next step more clearly. Well that just starts the process again, keep working at it and keep learning as you go along. The question is if you ever reach your full potential. If there ever comes a time that you have reached the level beyond which you won’t ever go. The judge is you. You are the only one who can assess if there is more or something different you can explore. Skills may very well be transferable and you may have developed to your full potential in one area only to discover that there is another adjacent area where you could grow into.

It only stops when you are satisfied that it can stop now. Not because you are worried about what lies beyond the horizon or around the next bend but because you feel you have reached that comfortable level that you can look back and genuinely say that you have given it your all and have satisfied all the need for exploration and growth you had.


Operational problems and Benefit plans

A wise man once told me: “Never fix your operational problems with a benefits plan”. Good and solid advice that I have re-issued many times after that.

In one of the companies that we acquired during my career, the salary increases had pretty much been handled by local plant managers. They seemed to have lots of leverage in the compensation and benefits area and some of them had used the premiums for the healthcare insurance as ways to boost net income for the workers. As our company had a policy of moving employees around the system to share expertise and create challenging careers, we were confronted with the issues of having not only different salary lines across that whole company but also varying benefits premiums for similar offerings.

Benefit plans are usually designed for the longer term. Benefits plans do not relate directly to your work. You save money, you go to the doctor, you feel secure with your insurances etc. It has no relation with your work. This also fits with the Two Factor Theory by Herzberg, where these benefit plans fall under the category “hygiene factors” and can not be used to motivate the employees. Get it wrong though and dissatisfaction will cause the employees to be demotivated. Motivation only comes from the job intrinsic factors; meaningful work, a great boss, challenging environment etc.

Hammer and screw, isolated on white background

Benefit offerings and their premiums have an impact on your family income. Changes in benefits plans will affect the family income. Promoting your benefit plans or boosting them to attract and retain talent is the wrong move however. You don’t want your company to be known as a great place to get sick, retire or die, you want your company to be known as a great place to work.

Once you let operational factors creep into your benefit plan decisions, you run the risk of being overly competitive and thus wasting your money as people don’t come for benefits but for great jobs. Job content will motivate but the long term motivational value of benefits is questionable. You also run the risk of not being competitive enough in which case you will have issues recruiting as people need to see a package with all “hygiene factors” in place before they want to work for you.

Benefit plans are just the wrong tool to fix your operational issues.

So keep the operational issues out of the benefit plans but don’t forget, that offering appropriate  benefit plans that are competitive in your industry is a requirement to ensure you won’t run into issues with the “hygiene factors”.


One of the questions I get regularly is about which incentives to offer to employees. The immediate return question is : “What do you want to accomplish?”.

There are many books written about incentive design, but the most important question is always about your company, your department, your employees and there is no book written for that specific case so you’ll have to do some work and develop your own specific view on incentives and your specific design.

Incentive Systems

Motivation Incentives are part of motivation. Motivation is anything that targets behavior change. Offering money when a certain milestone has been accomplished is one form, offering a lavish vacation when a huge order has been granted is another form. The end of year profit sharing is part of it as is the annual performance bonus. Also promotion as a reward for doing a particular job well for a specific time can be seen as an incentive and then you have the “employee of the month” programs that aim to create both role models and motivate by public acknowledgement. For a sales organization the design and implementation of the sales incentive program is traditionally a huge deal.

The various forms of incentives all have in common that they need to provide a piece of feedback to the employee such that lessons can be learned and a certain behavior can be created, continued or avoided. Giving inadequate feedback will trigger unwanted responses and you’ll get behavior you would have rather avoided. Every organization works with incentives. Even the most dull government organization provides incentives by appreciation from co-workers or management or even the public. Planned or unplanned, incentives are everywhere. Likewise, feedback is everywhere and employees do react on it.

Thought model
As a fan of the Two Factor Theory by Herzberg (1959), we need to explain that motivation is provided by getting the motivators right and de-motivation is avoided by getting the hygiene factors right. As salary and benefits are regarded as hygiene factors, the question may come up how monetary rewards can be used as motivators. The HBR has been kind enough to publish an excellent article on this and it turns out that indeed salary is not a very good predictor of job satisfaction. There is another consideration though. One of the hygiene factors that potentially can lead to de-motivation is salary. In fact the hygiene factors incorporate all the monetary rewards and benefits and thus you can conclude that if it is customary in the industry to provide a certain kind of incentives, this now becomes part of the hygiene factors and if your company fails to get it right or does not provide it at all, your staff will become de-motivated. So with this curve ball we are back to designing incentives, bearing in mind that we cannot be too different from the comparable industry as employees will compare but at the same time realizing that not one size fits all in incentive design and the “best practice” may very well turn out to be the “most common” practice and not be the best for your situation.

Incentive design
The most important part of incentive design is thinking through exactly what behavior you want to create, change or modify. If you want to boost sales, you could provide incentives to find new customers. To avoid your sales force to only work on new customers, you can build in a disincentive in case they loose a customer. You could also set targets and provide extra rewards once those sales targets have been met but there are lots of options to game the system there. When setting productivity targets for a factory or department the pitfalls will be in what to do with necessary trial runs that impact productivity, lack of customer demand that creates inefficient use of materials or unsafe behavior in order to work fast to get the rewards. Setting and rewarding safe behavior is yet another area with lots of issues. Setting annual targets may have employees totally loose interest when something happens in the second month of the year. Also setting targets based on no accident may trigger the employees to game the system and not report on incidents.

A compensation or Human Resources professional should be able to help you out with thinking through the design. In a future article we may cover some of the legislative and tax issues related to incentives. Also in a future article we will cover the implementation as an incentive program is only as good as its implementation. This post does not allow for a review of all incentive design problems and angles and as said above incentive design is very specific for your company and situation. Although the design professionals can help, you as the manager/leader will need to provide all input to ensure a successful incentive program. Coming back to the Two Factor Theory, we also need to continue to bear in mind that however great our incentive program will be, the real motivators are in the intrisic part of the job, meaningful work, knowing where your contributions fit in the larger picture of the company and a boss who provides coaching and support. Good luck and don’t hesitate to ask us some questions.