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7 Steps for Turning Employees’ Potential into Performance

June 3, 2019
It’s all about putting the right people in the right positions

Imagine on Monday you discover that your meticulous, rule-following accountant and creative, eccentric marketing person have switched positions. How’s this change likely to work out? In fact, some variation of this misalignment is common in most organizations. 

Consider, for example, the Waybeloe Potential Corporation: It had been operating at the break-even point for the past five years, and CEO Harvey Waybeloe was frustrated.  Another CEO told him about an employee-alignment process that was delivering amazing results for his own business and others.  In desperation, Harvey decided to try the new approach, which involved putting the right people in the right positions.  Within two years, WPC profits increased from break-even to $3.2 million.

Most business experts rely on the aphorism that 80% of the work is done by only 20% of the workforce.  These 20% are the “top performers”, who usually produce three- to four-times more than the other 80%.  The main reason for this outcome is job alignment rather than individual attitude or personal drive.  Here’s evidence: It’s common for top performers to be moved or promoted and then become poor performers.

Likewise, many poor performers become top performers when reassigned to appropriate roles.  The bottom line is that everyone can be a top performer (or a poor performer) depending on how well the work aligns with their innate characteristics.

How can you deliberately create an organization in which individuals’ work is aligned with their innate characteristics (or, abilities)?  Here’s an overview of the process can work.

1.  Shift from focusing on skills, experience, and education. Emphasize innate characteristics. It’s common for people who are “great on paper” to get hired and become poor performers.  In the same way, many top performers started off lacking in the “required” skills, experience, and education.  When individuals’ work aligns with their innate characteristics, they can use their natural abilities and unleash their passion for their work. 

Note, too, that the underlying implication of the “innate characteristics” principle is that the best training and management will not turn poorly aligned employees into top performers.

2.  Select the right assessment tool.  Many organizations use personality assessments in the hope that gaining more objective information about people will help to characterize them accurately, in order to set them up for success. However, usually the results of this approach are disappointing due to four inherent defects in the reasoning:

a. What you think of as “personality” is mostly surface-level, observable behavior, not the underlying characteristics that are driving such behavior.  The drivers of behavior are more accurate and stable indicators, and predictive of personality.

b. Assessment-takers usually provide different answers according to which of the following they consider: how they actually see themselves; how they believe others see them; and how they want to see themselves.

c. Assessment-takers use a specific context or situation to answer the questions. For example, answers to questions related to “extroversion” (sociability and talkativeness) may vary depending on context differences: small versus large groups, familiar versus unfamiliar people, level of interest in the topic of conversation, etc. 

d. If an assessment is used for a job application, the applicant often has an opinion on what traits the employer is looking for, and skews the answers accordingly.

What’s a better option? Select an assessment that delves beneath the personality into what is more innate with people.  This will eliminate the biases of personality assessments and provide more valid and reliable data.

3. Establish trust with the employees.  Inform the employees about your organization’s commitment to align their work with their natural talents.  Don’t hide things or surprise people.  People want to do what they’re good at and enjoy, and will appreciate the recognition of their talent.

4.  Develop an understanding of the innate characteristics being measured.  Before you can align individuals’ innate characteristics with their work, it’s essential to understand what these characteristics mean.  In other words, how does each characteristic influence the way individuals think and behave. From that conclusion you will have the basis for identifying which characteristics are needed for different types of positions in your organization.

5. Develop clarity on the job duty break-down. It’s important to know what tasks people will do routinely in each job. The hiring team (direct manager and others with a stake in position success) will meet with individuals to gain clarity on the percentage of time spent performing each job responsibility.  Then, group together duties that are very similar in nature (family of duties.)  Estimate the percentage of time individuals will spend working on each duty for each job.

6. Determine which innate characteristics are critical — and how to assign value to these. The hiring team determines which innate characteristic is critical for each job duty.  They also agree on the desired range for each characteristic. For example, on a 1-10 scale, the range for creative thinking should be between 7-9. From this, you can develop an optimal range for each critical characteristic.

7. Administer assessment and align employees with job functions. Assess both current employees and potential hires and compare these results with the desired ranges.  Take the appropriate action based on the strength of the level of alignment. 

Top performers almost always fit into desired ranges for each critical innate characteristic.  If this is not the case in the results for your organization, you should adjust your desired ranges based on the data. 

On the matter of aligning employees, also consider: 

•  When employees don’t align with their current jobs, evaluate other positions within the organization for which each one may align well (or better.)

•  Openly discuss available options with employees who are misaligned.  Develop a plan to shift roles or tweak job descriptions when this is feasible. Frequently, there are other employees who’d be interested in trading positions or some duties that match better with their own innate characteristics.

•  For applicants applying to open positions, interview only those people who align well with the desired innate characteristics.  When you interview people who don’t align, you may be tempted to discount the assessment results. This rarely ends well. 

In the end, the most important job for managers is to maximize the ROI of the workforce.  Recall what Peter Drucker said: “The task of a manager is to make people’s strengths effective and their weaknesses irrelevant.”

The most important thing you can ever do as a leader is to put people in a position to excel rather than just get by, or fail.  How are you doing in your most important task?
Brad Wolff specializes in workforce and personal optimization. He’s a speaker and author of "People Problems? How to Create People Solutions for a Competitive Advantage." He is the managing partner for Atlanta-based PeopleMax, and specializes in helping companies maximize the potential and results of their people to make more money with less stress. Learn more at

About the Author

Brad Wolff | Managing Partner

Brad Wolff specializes in workforce and personal optimization. He’s a speaker and author of People Problems? How to Create People Solutions for a Competitive Advantage.