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High Performer vs. High Potential

February 14, 2023

One of the most common mistakes every organization makes is promoting the wrong person.

Through my work at ADDO, I help leaders maximize their teams, develop great cultures, and inspire their team members, and in the process, I hear of gaps in their organizations. Often, these gaps exist because they decide to promote an individual who is a hard worker but not a gifted leader.

I witnessed this happen for the first time in college while volunteering for a student organization. One of our most passionate and dedicated volunteers was promoted to a position of leadership, but this individual struggled to produce the results the organization needed to grow and thrive. Another leader was average at best in one role, but everyone could see their potential. When given the opportunity to take the next step, this leader flourished… and so did everyone around them. 

The problem is we have a tendency to promote high performers when they do not always possess high potential.

Disclaimer: This is not going to be a popular post for the crowd that only wants to reward hard work. 

Let me be clear: I want high performers on my team. They are valued, and they are appreciated. But if we fail to acknowledge this pitfall, we will be dealing with problems for years to come. 

For the sake of clarity, let me provide a couple of definitions. A high performer is an incredible team member. These individuals show up on time, they are passionate about the mission, they are unbelievably dedicated, and they perform their roles with excellence. These individuals may or may not be the ideal candidates to be promoted. 

An individual with high potential could be a high performer, but not always. A high potential individual possesses the qualities essential to leading well. They are clear communicators, gifted in resolving conflict, eager encouragers, and able to hold people accountable in a productive way. Oftentimes, they have the ability to zoom out and see the bigger pictures. 

Leaders can struggle to promote the right people in two ways:
1. We often promote high performers into positions of leadership even when they lack the skills to succeed at the next level.
2. We often overlook high potential individuals who might not be the best in their current role. 

I know you’ve seen this play out:
– We put the most gifted nurse in charge of scheduling and coordinating the other nurses on her floor, only to find she’s not gifted in administration.
– We put the best teacher in an administrative role, only to find he struggles to lead other teachers (and adults) the way he taught and led his students so effectively in the classroom.
– We put our best nursery volunteer at church in charge of the children’s ministry only to find they struggle to communicate effectively with the parents.
– We promote the brilliant assistant coach to a head coaching role, when they aren’t equipped to manage the entire program.

In an ideal world, the high performer is the high potential leader you need.

But we must be sure! Before you make your next promotion, ask yourself “Is this person just a high performer, or are they truly high potential?”

The success and future of our organizations depend on our ability to discern the difference and choose the right leaders for our teams. 


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