It might not seem like much, but the difference between potential and performance can be a deep chasm. To be fair, they’re easily confused, and often.

“In a lot of organizations leaders are confusing high-potential employees with high-performance employees,” says Krishna Powell, a longtime human resources professional and owner of HR 4 Your Small Biz in Burlington County. “Leaders see high-performing employees and want to promote them. But just because they’re high-performing employees, that doesn’t mean they’re high-potential employees.”

And that, Powell says, can be the difference between a company running a comfortable profit and failing to right the ship.

Powell will present “The Hidden Profit: High Potential vs. High Performing Employees” at the New Jersey Business & Industry Association in Trenton on Tuesday, August 8, at 8:30 a.m. The talk is part of the NJBIA Business Bootcamp Series and will also feature the organization’s vice president of member value, Stefanie Riehl. Cost: $55. Visit www.NJBIA.org.

Powell was born and raised in Trenton by her mother, a part-time librarian at Mercer County Community College. It was her mother who inspired her to go to college and pursue a better life, she says. And from the beginning of her professional life, Powell was the definition of potential. Her first job in human resources was at Merrill Lynch, where she worked for Margaret Ingate as an administrative assistant while attending MCCC.

What’s unusual about that is that Ingate, now a psychology professor at Rutgers University, was all about education ‒‒ she required master’s degrees even from her assistants. Powell, however, was a 21-year-old mother trying to get through an associate’s degree program. But, she says, Ingate saw her innate drive to do more with her life. “I told her, ‘I’ll stay and finish my degree,’” Powell says. “She took a chance on me.”

In 1999 Powell delivered on her promise to earn her associate degree in humanities. In 2005 she earned her bachelor’s in liberal studies from Rider, and in 2012 her MBA in international business from Strayer University. By this point, though, she had moved on from Merrill Lynch. Since 2001 she has worked in administrative and executive roles at Horizon NJ Health of Blue Cross/Blue Shield, Ulticom, Alere, and Unisys. She started HR 4 Your Small Biz in 2014 as a way to help smaller companies understand their options and practices better ‒‒ and, of course, help business leaders understand that not everyone thinks the way they think.

Some people like where they are. One of the most common issues Powell comes across is that supervisors spot someone outperforming everyone else by a mile and think, “Let’s put them on a career path.”

While that sounds noble, or at least nice, the problem with that line of thinking is that management is answering a question no one asked ‒‒ because, literally, no one asked whether that employee was interested in a career path. Someone just assumed that because a particular employee is turning out 400 percent better sales numbers than everyone else, that employee would be just perfect for a management position. But often, if a supervisor actually talked to that employee, he would learn that his prized dynamo actually has no interest in being a team leader, manager, or any other euphemism for boss.

If you as the supervisor don’t ask an employee what she wants, Powell says, one of three things will happen: she’ll take the promotion out of loyalty to the company, try really hard, and ultimately fall on her face; try really hard and do okay, but will never be engaged in the job; or quit.

“Now you’ve lost that talent, that person you’ve groomed,” she says. Which means that now you have to find two new people, one to replace the person you lost and one to take the job that person refused or flopped at.

Managers, Powell says, have a hard time understanding this. Their general assumption is, “Who wouldn’t want to have this job?” she says. “Who wouldn’t want to make this money.”

Compounding the problem is fear. High-performing employees with no interest in doing a different job get asked if they’re interested in a promotion and are afraid to say no, Powell says. And that just leads to those same three scenarios outlined above.

Getting the right message through. Asking employees what they want is a clear first step more companies need to take, Powell says. Workers with aspirations will make themselves known. These are high-potential employees, the ones who want to move up and be managers and leaders. High-performance workers happy in their existing roles, on the other hand, will (or, ideally, should) make it known that they want to stay put and not have to deal with paperwork and other management duties.

But just as critical, she says, is asking in the right way. Managers shouldn’t walk up to an employee and say, “We want to promote you, what do you think?” That puts employees at a disadvantage and forces many of them into a corner. Instead, managers need to ask what the employee sees for himself, and, most importantly, ask whether he is interested in a career or management path or is happy at his current job.

Another thing managers need to keep in mind, Powell says, is checking their egos at the door. Managers “have to not be offended if someone says ‘I want to stay in this role.’ We need to be okay with that,” she says.

The bottom line. Powell often has to frame her arguments to business leaders by citing the true cost of replacing a high-performing employee who gets scared away by talk of promotion.

“The cost of losing a valued employee is two or three times their salary,” she says. The numbers add up thusly: you have a new person to pay now that the old one has left, you have to pay managers and trainers to spend hours getting the new person up to speed, those trainers have other jobs in the company they’re not getting to (and, therefore, not bringing in any money), and it takes a year or more for new employees to get acclimated to a job. Even if they’re good at it from the start, they don’t know the nuances of the job enough to be as productive as they can.

Then again, it might be easier for Powell to understand the idea of letting people be whoever they need to be. She has practiced that as a mother for the past 24 years. Her daughter, Brenaea Fairchild, graduated from Princeton University last year and decided she wanted to be a tutor. Fairchild started her own company, BFair Tutoring, based in Princeton, to help students from underserved places like Trenton get help through school so that high-potential kids can get the degrees and lives they want.

Powell says she was surprised to hear that her daughter worked her way through an Ivy League school just to be a teacher and tutor in Trenton, but that is who she wanted to be. Powell says she is extremely proud of her daughter and her character. Powell learned that from her own mother, who, despite not having a college degree herself, understood that her daughter very much wanted one.

“Even if she didn’t get it,” she was still supportive,” Powell says. And that’s the lesson she wants managers to know.

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