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The Performance Versus Potential Problem

By Seth Kaufman

The Performance Versus Potential Problem

Warning: Focusing solely on high performance may be detrimental to your career.

HR departments and C-Suite executives are understandably drawn to employees who land in the “High Performance/High Potential” quadrant of a talent matrix. But Gorick Ng, the author of The Unspoken Rules: Secrets to Starting Your Career Off Right, says focusing on doing a great job may hinder your chances for success.

“Putting your head down and letting your good work speak for itself will only get you so far,” says Ng, a career advisor at Harvard who also teaches at UC Berkeley. “High performers don’t necessarily get promoted – they get asked to train other people, or they get asked to retain their current position.”

Showing your potential involves being dynamic and conspicuous, says Ng, who spoke at a recent Vanguard dialogue with Vanguard’s Ken Banta and Ken Stone. “You need to have a point of view. You need to show up with solutions. You need to anticipate problems and look around corners. You need to manage up, manage down, and manage stakeholders all around. You need to see the big picture and think strategically about the work rather than just put your head down and assume that someone else has thought about these things for you.”

Such savvy may come more naturally to some people than others. And some may not realize that going above and beyond a job description or being a super team player can play into climbing the promotion ladder.

Ironically, says Ng, leaders who expect such dynamism may be to blame.

“They start wondering, ‘Well, why is it that this person isn’t taking the initiative? Why is this person not going above and beyond? Why are they not coming to the happy hour? Why are they not speaking up in meetings?’ It might just be that those expectations weren’t set clearly upfront.”

Listen to the podcast, read the transcript, or watch the video for more insights from Ng and Vanguard founder Ken Banta.

These thoughts are taken from a dialogue conducted on Jul 25, 2022. Participants may have changed companies and/or titles since then.


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