Consider the Growth Trajectory of Each Employee to Build a Winning Team

August 11, 2017

Career growth trajectory

To make sure you are creating a team that generates exceptional results and helps members achieve their ambitions, you need some people who are on a steep growth trajectory in their careers and others who are on a more gradual path.

When people are on a gradual growth trajectory, they are in “rock star” phase; when they are on a steep growth trajectory, they are in a “superstar” phase.

Rock stars are solid as a rock. Think of the Rock of Gibraltar, not Bruce Springsteen. The rock stars love their work. They have found their groove. They don’t want the next job if it will take them away from their craft. If you honor and reward the rock stars, they’ll become the people you most rely on. If you promote them into roles they don’t want or aren’t suited for, however, you’ll lose them—or, even worse, wind up firing them.

Superstars, on the other hand, need to be challenged constantly and given new opportunities to grow.

Making the shift from “potential” to “growth”

The performance-potential matrix that so many companies use for succession planning or “talent management” systematically undervalues the rock stars on your team. The performance-potential matrix wasn’t meant to assess people at all. McKinsey & Company originally developed it to help General Electric decide which businesses to invest in, but HR departments at thousands of organizations have adapted it to do talent management. This matrix asks managers to assess both the performance and the potential of all employees and then put them into one of nine boxes—high “performance/high potential” being the best and “low performance/low potential” being the worst.

One problem with the word “potential” is that it doesn’t allow for a positive evaluation of people who are great at what they do and want to keep doing it. But there was a need to keep people like that happy and productive. Nobody wants to be labeled “low potential.”

However, using the word “growth” instead of “potential” to help managers think about what opportunities to give to which people on their teams can make a world of difference. Instead of asking an implicitly judgmental question such as “Is this a person with high or low potential?” managers can ask themselves questions like:

  • What growth trajectory does each person on my team want to be on right now?
  • Have I given everybody opportunities that are in line with what they really want?
  • What growth trajectory do my direct reports believe they are on? Do I agree? And if I don’t, why don’t I?

Sometimes people really want to grow and are capable of contributing more than they have been allowed to; at other times, they simply want more money or recognition but don’t really want to change the way they work or contribute any more than they do already. As the boss, you’re the one who’s going to have to know your direct reports well enough to make these distinctions and then have some radically candid conversations when you see things differently.

This set of questions around growth trajectory can help you discover what motivates each person much better than a set of questions around “potential” or “talent” could do. And the insights it produces will help you avoid burning out the rock stars and boring the superstars. They will help remind you that trajectories change and that you shouldn’t put permanent labels on people. They will help you build stable teams that achieve astounding results.

Adapted from Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity by Kim Scott. Copyright 2017 Kim Scott. Reprinted with permission from St. Martin’s Press.

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About The Author

Kim Scott is the co-founder and CEO of Candor, Inc. Prior to founding Candor, Inc., Scott was a CEO coach at Dropbox, Qualtrics, Twitter, and several other Silicon Valley companies. She was a member of the faculty at Apple University, developing the course “Managing at Apple,” and before that led AdSense, YouTube, and Doubleclick Online Sales and Operations at Google.

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