Performance vs. Potential…Is There a Difference?

Performance vs. Potential…Is There a Difference?

Our new guest writer Seth McColley is a HR professional with more than 25 years of diverse, action-packed experience across a number of industries such as telecommunications, restaurant/hospitality, distribution, software, retail and construction/heavy equipment. He has worked for some of the largest Fortune 500 companies and been able to apply those learnings to help smaller companies “level up” and grow. He understands that we are not defined by the titles we hold or our position on the organization chart, but rather our relationships and how we can serve others. In his inaugural blog post, Seth asks “Performance vs. Potential…Is There a Difference?”

Seth is a firm believer that people are any organization’s greatest asset, but employees need to be led, not managed. Our professional networks need to be cultivated, not manipulated. If we are the sum of all of our experiences, the connections we make and the relationships we build make us the incredible people that we are today and that we will become tomorrow. 

Seth launched his first podcast, “6 Degrees or Less”, in February 2019, with a sole focus on the art and power of networking, or “relationships” as he calls it. It’s connected to the idea, six degrees of separation, that every single one of us is no more than six steps away from being connected to one another. He uses this platform to help break down stereotypes and misconceptions about what networking is (and isn’t) and to help listeners improve their networking skills to build more meaningful, effective professional relationships. On each episode, guests from different backgrounds, with different dreams, and on different journeys will share their stories and lessons learned. If our network is the lifeblood of our careers, the professional connections that we make will significantly affect the impact of our careers. 

Seth is a solid ENFP (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator) and his five Strengthfinders strengths are – Empathy, Adaptability, Context, Harmony and Ideation. He earned his BA in Psychology from the University of Texas at Austin and his MBA from the University of Phoenix in Seattle. He is actively involved with both Dallas HR and the Oklahoma City Human Resources Society (OCHRS). He currently lives in Edmond, OK with his wife and son (5), while his daughter (19) attends Southern Methodist University in Dallas, TX.

Is there a difference between performance and potential? 

The answer is a resounding yes, particularly when you’re talking about talent and employee development. The mistake that many (if not most) organizations make is that they’re confusing one for the other or even worse, lumping them into the same group (and usually calling them high potential or HiPo). 

Having supported sales organizations a few different times in my career, I’ve seen this play out more times than I can count. The conversation goes something like this:

Sales Director: “I’ve got an open Sales Manager spot to fill and I think Bobby is the right guy for the job.” 

HR Manager: “Oh? Tell me more. Why do you think Bobby is a good fit for this role?”  

Sales Director: “Well, for one, he’s got the best sales numbers in the entire division! Did you take a look at the TPS reports last week? The guy’s been killing it for the last three quarters. He’s a perfect fit!” 

HR Manager: “Of course I looked at the TPS reports. I know he’s the best salesperson on your team, but what makes him the most qualified for the Sales Manager role? Has he ever led a team before? Has he ever managed anyone?” 

Sales Director: “What’s it matter? Bobby is the top salesperson on my team. He’s a natural leader!” 

Has anyone else ever had this conversation? Does this sound familiar? 

Abraham Maslow once said, “If you only have a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.” 

One of the biggest mistakes that an organization can make, when it comes to their talent, is mistaking high potential for high performance. A blog post from Software Advice, gives managers some tools to help identify, assess and develop high potentials and high performers.  

Check this out…  

“High performers stand out in any organization. They consistently exceed expectations, and are management’s go-to people for difficult projects because they have a track record of getting the job done. They’re great at their job and take pride in their accomplishments, but may not have the potential (or the desire) to succeed in a higher-level role or to tackle more advanced work. 

High potentials are birds of a different feather. Malcolm Munro, founder and CEO and President at Boss Builders, says that “High potentials have demonstrated initial aptitude for their technical abilities and…have future potential to make a big impact.” In short, they can do more for the organization – possibly much more (with the caveat that high potentials who are consistently low performers are rarely strong candidates for management roles). 

High potentials can be difficult to identify, for two reasons.  

  • First, high performance is so blindingly easy to observe that it drowns out the less obvious attributes and behaviors that characterize high potentials–like change management or learning capabilities.
  • Second, few organizations codify the attributes and competencies they value in their ideal employees–which means that managers don’t know precisely what to look for to assess potential. 

As a result, most managers focus exclusively on performance, and that can be a problem. 


I’ve seen high performance get mistaken for high potential, firsthand, and you know what it usually equates to? 

Style over substance. 

When an employee is earmarked as “high potential” it’s often because they’re operating at such a high level at their current job. They may look the part, say the right things, and put themselves in front of the right people; it doesn’t always mean that they’re capable of doing more. Hence, style over substance. 

This is where a sound, solid talent management plan comes into play. The best organizations have people processes that include bench planning, succession planning, talent reviews and the like to help identify high performers, High Potentials, mission-critical roles, potential successors, and then create development plans to help put the right people into the right places. In future posts, I can dive deeper into the mechanics and details of where to begin when it comes to succession planning, how an organization determines which roles are “mission critical” (and why succession planning for those roles is so critical), and what it means to create bench plans and regularly update them. 

Clearly, managing and developing top talent isn’t easy. As HR professionals, the least we can do is get some practical tools into the hands of our managers and leaders so they can start understanding the difference between potential and performance. While these two are certainly related to one another, in and of themselves they are completely separate things.

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