Five ways to unlock your workforce’s true potential

26th February by Gina Lodge

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Five ways to unlock your workforce’s true potential

At 2018’s Global Peter Drucker Forum I chaired a plenary session that looked at how business leaders can capitalise on the most underutilised resource on the plant – our workforce. Entitled ‘Human Potential – Are We Cracking the Code’, I wanted to share with you some of the panellists’ theories and best practices that will be effective in transforming this vast resource into success for organisations.


Claudio Fernández-Aráoz a senior adviser at Egon Zehnder, says we have entered a new era of talent spotting, one where we need to make great people decisions.

We must move on from making hiring decisions based on candidates having the right competencies. Thought needs to be turned to a candidate’s potential because jobs are becoming increasingly complex and as functions change, our people need to continue growing and learning in order to keep up.

There are four hallmarks high potential workers should possess – curiosity, insight, engagement and determination. In 30 years of research, Fernández-Aráoz has found that each of hallmark correlates with and contributes to leadership competencies such as strategic or results orientation, collaboration and influence, team leadership and building organisational capability.

When appointing, promoting or choosing a successor, managers must look beyond past and present experience. What potential does that executive have? How far can they go? Investing in our potential executives and exposing them to other areas of an organisation yields strong growth opportunities and brings immediate value to a company.

Why are we wasting our talent? According to Fernández-Aráoz, ignorance, apathy and inflated incentives are to blame with 70% of organisations lacking a robust model for potential assessment while 80% do not train their leaders on assessment.

Companies must get better at recognising potential when making recruitment and talent pipeline management decisions. How can an organisation invest in their development? How will the business benefit from executives being rotated within the organisation and how can their experience and skills be enhanced through stretch assignments? Planning should be made around how that individual will contribute to the business. Questions need to be asked such as how committed are they, what will their legacy be? Executives should also be rewarded for the long-term quality and success they bring, not the short-term successes.


A professor at the ESCP Europe Business School, Isaac Getz’s message to the corporate world was that “leadership is not a position assigned by your superiors, but a role granted by your people when they choose to follow you.”

There is no one perfect organisational model that liberates employee initiative and potential, but there are companies actively trying to achieve this ideal through practice.

Success, according to Getz, is coming from senior business leaders letting go of their egos with the help of executive coaching. The command and control style of leadership is being consigned to history as CEOs give their staff the freedom to do what is right in order to overcome challenges and deliver high quality service and value as standard.

Workers are an organisation’s biggest asset and empowering employees in this way fosters a culture of staff buy in, loyalty, trust and engagement. This management style can be transformative. Companies operating in this way are highly desirable places to work and this collaborative approach results in a passionate and committed workforce who are dedicated to boosting productivity and business performance.


Females have had a big impact on the style of leadership over the last few decades, but Sally Helgesen, the women’s leadership consultant and author, believes this has not always received the recognition it deserves. What were initially regarded as soft skills presented by women managers have over time, become key leadership characteristics.

Helgesen thinks inclusion has been siloed and made into a diversity issue rather than being looked at as a leadership matter. Inclusive behaviours and practices should be demonstrated from the top down with organisations hiring and coaching for inclusive behaviours and making executives more accountable for their behaviours.

An inclusive approach contributes to building strong internal and external relationships, it lends itself to not being frightened of listening and taking onboard conflicting points of view and it is instrumental in boosting engagement. An abrasive management style is damaging for businesses and Helgesen strongly advocates developing, promoting and training inclusive leaders instead, because they will be more effective leaders for the future.


Sunnie Giles, president of the Quantum Leadership Group backed the belief that the command and control leadership style has become obsolete. Today’s leaders need to recast themselves and focus on how they can enable their workers to do their jobs to the best of their ability for a collective benefit.

It is time to let others self-organise and have the authority and responsibility to do their roles. We need to reclaim our humanity because this is so instrumental in allowing us to be innovative. It is innovation that is so crucial to corporate survival and success and managers need to make it safe for employees to experiment, problem solve and learn from trial and error. The human touch is also important and showing authentic emotions helps strengthen connections within teams and organisations.

A workforce and organisation built on this management approach of having a collective purpose and goals is ultimately best positioned to succeed. 


Curtis Carlson, former CEO of SRI and now founder of the Practice of Innovation argues that our most important innovation is the way we work. He focused on how the use of a core value proposition and comparative learning accelerate value creation.

Carlson turned SRI’s fortunes around during his tenure as CEO, taking the tech giant from near bankruptcy to creating tens of millions of dollars of new economic value through new innovations. The same people who had been failing for twenty years become high performers under Carlson’s leadership and helped him grow the company by three and a half times.

Carlson says that few companies have a thoughtful value-creation process and even fewer are truly customer focused. Achieving that starts by employees understanding the meaning of “customer value”. He feels that a paradigm shift is possible by taking simple steps. His teams have worked well because they have a shared vision, understanding of the company’s strategy and their unique roles complement one another. He sets out to have a shared framework combined with the right mix of skills, creativity and behaviours and uses value creation forums which have been embedded deep within the business. These regular forums have been highly effective by providing incremental improvements to deliver excellence for the business and ultimately for the customer.

The challenge for leaders and managers now is to bring greater purpose, meaning and values to the forefront of business or to risk extinction if they don’t. The labour force of the future is likely to range from young professionals through to an ageing population who may be working into their seventies, so business leaders will need skills to develop the potential of this new landscape.

Perhaps, as Peter Drucker said, “It is not about How can I achieve?” More, “How can I contribute?”.