Shepherding Potential

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I am constantly looking for new leadership lessons. When I am a student or trainee, I observe how the instructor structures the class, presents information, and keeps the room engaged. As a sports fan, I pay attention to how a coach organizes the team, creates energy toward a shared goal, and adapts to change. Over the last year, I have had one of the richest opportunities as my wife and I began raising our first child, Winnie, who recently turned one.

Babies arrive full of potential, possessing a multitude of untapped talents but with limited skills. As a parent, I am always looking to connect potential with opportunity. And the steps to accomplish that as a parent feel familiar to those I follow as a leader.

·       Observe potential
·       Create opportunities
·       Keep out of the ditches
·       Celebrate success

When I’m working with or hiring people, I am looking at talent. At potential. If the role allows for it, I particularly want to hire someone smarter and more capable than I am. Someone I believe can grow and perform beyond what I might be capable of doing, and who might grow out of the role I hire them for in a year or two.

After hiring, I want to match projected potential with opportunity. Depending on where they are in their careers, staff may be aware of their talents. Of their true potential. That frequently is not the case, however. And it certainly is not the case with a young child like my daughter. She and I can’t possibly know what her capacity is.

With Winnie, I am constantly exposing her to opportunities to see what takes hold. Together, we discovered she has great rhythm, had the dexterity to pick up and throw a ball almost immediately, and could climb steps with ease. If I hadn’t presented her with different things to drum on, tried rolling balls to her at an early age, or encouraged her to climb steps, we would not have learned these things about her so quickly. And, depending on the talent involved, we may never discover these abilities at all if she isn’t exposed to an opportunity to leverage and explore its boundaries.

With staff, I am routinely matching them with opportunities to see what resonates. Do they like speaking in public? Leading teams? Improving process? Do they pay attention to details? Or is the bigger picture more interesting? During reviews, one of my favorite questions to ask is, “What are you especially good at or enjoy doing that you don’t get to do in your current role?” Asking that question almost always brings surprises and unexpected opportunities.

While it is obvious that Winnie won’t climb stairs or say words perfectly the first time she tries, it may be not as straightforward for leaders to be comfortable with similar learning challenges their staff encounter. As leaders, we can sometimes be impatient when staff approach situations differently than we might. Or where the results they generate are not precisely what we would have done or following the same path we might have. It is important for us as leaders to create space where staff have the opportunity to safely explore their boundaries, forge their own paths, and learn the limits of their capacity. And this means frequently failing as they encounter new scenarios and situations.

But it’s not all about failing. When my daughter was climbing the steps the first few times, I was there to offer a safety net so she would not injure herself. And to present a subtle helping hand if she got stuck and frustrated. I did not expect her to do it perfectly the very first time. Or even the second. And I didn’t expect her to climb stairs the way I do (she is one years old!). Nor did I stop her from slipping and struggling to find the approach that worked best for her.

This is the same for leaders nurturing staff to grow to their full potential. “Keep them out of the ditches” is often my mantra as I am shepherding someone through a growth opportunity. They might careen across the median at times. But if the goal is to reach a particular destination, I want to make sure they keep moving, stay on the road, and head toward the right destination. People truly stretching themselves with growth opportunities need to forge their own path and make their own mistakes, but know they are doing so in a safe environment where you won’t let them fall all the way down the stairs. Or blame them when things don’t go perfectly right.

I wouldn't blame my daughter for not playing the piano correctly the first time she sits at one (although she is pretty good at it already). I also wouldn't expect a staff member to manage a large project perfectly the first time they have the opportunity.

When staff make mistakes for the first time, we let them know it is okay. Growth is an iterative process, and leadership often means cultivating courage in our staff to take chances. And fail. One of my favorite sports quotes comes from former Temple basketball John Chaney. He frequently shared with his players that “Failing is okay. Becoming a failure is not. Better you go through the verb form than you become the noun.”

Throughout my career, I have been blessed to present many co-workers with unique growth opportunities. And to provide “air cover” and coach them on lessons learned when things didn’t go quite as planned. And to take time to celebrate their success as they improve and stretch to the limits of their abilities. With my daughter Winnie, I look forward to a lifetime of encouraging her to embrace opportunities to safely fail so she can realize her talents and maximize her full potential.

Larry Storey
University of Minnesota

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