When it comes to my role serving as the Governing Board Chairman at my daughters’ high school, one aspect of this leadership role that I enjoy the most is being invited to school events that celebrate the achievements of our students.
After all, when you spend much of your time discussing school budget issues, funding projects, approving various school policies and the like, having the opportunity to talk with students to learn about their accomplishments really helps to provide a context for the collective efforts of my team.
The most recent student celebratory event was particularly noteworthy as the focus was not on the best and brightest students in our school community. Instead, it was on students participating in a work-study program designed for students at-risk of dropping out or who suffer from intellectual disabilities.
The goal of this school-based program is simple – to provide these students with both a knowledge base and hands-on experience that will allow them to join the workforce at the end of the three year program. As these students are not the high achievers who win academic or athletic awards, they typically tend to get overlooked by others because there’s no rising star to be found among them.
And yet, a conversation I had with one of these students not only challenged that notion, but it helped to reveal a very important lesson that every leader today can benefit from. A lesson on how we can bring out the best in every employee under our care.
Before joining this work-study program, Malik was one of several students at-risk of dropping out of school, not just because he struggled to keep up with the school work, but also because he was extremely disorganized. As he told me when sharing his story, he had a hard time with the regular school work load because he couldn’t keep track of the various assignments he had to do.
It was at this point that Malik directed my focus to this binder he had on the table. As he revealed the contents inside his binder, he told me about how this program had helped him to become more organized, not just in how he managed his homework, but also in how he maintained his work station.
Most interestingly, Malik admitted that his newfound ability to be more organized has spilled into his family life as well in that he not only keeps his room clean, but he also makes his bed every morning, something his parents had never imagined he’d do.
Granted, this kind of effort would hardly be considered noteworthy or exceptional for most of us. But the point to here is not what Malik and his classmates accomplished. Rather, what Malik’s story reveals is the importance of helping those we lead to discover their potential to do more, to be more than they are today.
In the case of Malik and his fellow classmates, what helped drive their transformation to feeling like what they do matters and is important was the focus their teachers had identifying their untapped potential and creating opportunities for them to live up to what they’re truly capable of achieving.
Of course, this shift in focus from paying attention to what people accomplish to seeing the potential of those under our care is not only happening in many educational institutions. It’s also in many ways a key factor behind the on-going debate over the merits of the annual performance review.
Often in these discussions the point is made that leaders need to provide employees with regular feedback throughout the year – as opposed to sharing these insights in a single, structured conversation at the end of the year – as it’s far more effective in improving employee performance.
While there’s no question that providing regular, consistent feedback that encourages a person’s desire to learn and grow is vital to an organization’s long-term success, there’s another critical element that gets overlooked here. Specifically, that in these conversations to help our employees discover how they can become stronger contributors to our organization, our focus is not limited to their past efforts, but expands to seeing the potential they can bring to our shared purpose.
It’s an idea that comes into sharper focus if we look at some of great sporting legends of the past few decades. Whether it’s Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali, or Wayne Gretzky, what they share in common is that it’s not their accomplishments playing the sport they loved that made them great.
Rather, it was how their focus was not limited to what they had already achieved, but on their potential to do more. It was that singular belief in their potential that allowed each of them to attain the kind of successes they did on the basketball court, in the boxing ring, and on the skating rink.
Of course, what also made these men giants in their respective sport was how strong their beliefs were about their potential to stretch and grow beyond their current abilities.
In that regard, most of us probably better relate to Malik’s story – that what we need to bring our best selves to the table is knowing that those in leadership positions believe in our potential to do more; that they see our innate talent and skills that will allow us to evolve into that better version of ourselves, and go about providing us with opportunities to develop and hone them.
And science has shown that leaders do play a critical role in making that happen. Harvard psychologist Robert Rosenthal performed an experiment where he took students from Kindergarten to Grade 5 and had them take a cognitive ability test to evaluate their ability to learn and solve problems.
Rosenthal then shared these findings with the teachers, allowing them to see which of their students demonstrated a high potential for learning and growth.
As expected, the teachers paid more attention to these high-potential students and living up to the test results, these students went on to become among the best in their school.
Granted, these results seem pretty obvious – until we find out that the results identifying the high-potential students were actually randomized and not due to the results the students obtained on their test.
What this study revealed is that it was the teachers’ perception of these students’ potential that influenced the kind of support and encouragement they received; conditions which no doubt allowed these students to truly shine in their academic pursuits.
For leaders, it also demonstrates the power we have to not simply ensure that tasks get done by those we lead, but that we instill in our employees the notion that they are in fact capable of so much more.
In order to that, however, leaders need to show they believe in their employees’ potential to be more than they are today [Share on Twitter]. As the study above demonstrates, leaders cannot limit their focus solely to those identified as ‘high potentials’, but that we must recognize the potential found in all of our employees to become valued contributors to our organization’s success and long-term growth.
Indeed, by focusing on their potential – of what our employees can achieve when given the right support, guidance, and conditions – it becomes easier for them to accept the challenges they face as opportunities for learning and improvement as they will now have that hunger to accomplish more under our watch.
While writing this piece, I came upon this quote by Thomas Edison – “If we did all the things we were capable of, we would literally astound ourselves.”
It’s a quote I think every leader should take to heart – not just for themselves, but in terms of recognizing and nurturing the potential found in each of their employees. As Gretzky, Ali, and Jordan have demonstrated, what drives us to excel is believing in our potential; that we recognize what we’re truly capable of [Share on Twitter] and gaining the support to aim for no less than that.
Remember, to be a leader you have to inspire those you lead to bring their best selves to the work they do [Share on Twitter].
And there’s no question that there’s nothing more inspiring than having a leader who not only believes in your potential to be more, but are driven to provide you with opportunities to transform that inner potential into something real and tangible; into something others value and appreciate.
When I asked Malik and his fellow classmates what goals they have when they leave the program at the end of this year, many of them shared plans to start working at some of the companies they had apprenticed with, while some admitted they wanted to attend vocational school in order to get their high school equivalent degree.
In each case, there was an unmistakable impression that they understood that they had only just begun to tap into their full potential; that they had so much more to give and so much more room within which to grow.
It’s that spirit of optimism about our abilities and opportunities to evolve and grow, to become stronger contributors to our organization, our community, and even our country that leaders can inspire and nurture when we make it less about what our employees do and more about their potential to make a difference in making our shared purpose a reality.