Potential Needs a Push


Human Potential

What is human potential? We don’t know. You could say that potential is that what is possible. Or that what is not impossible. But with that not much has been said. We like to see potential as an innate quality. And like every quality, potential is limited. It’s hardly ever zero, meaning that all people have the potential to be someone, to create something, to relate to something.
Should we give a more concrete definition? Let’s try. Potential is the maximum level of functioning someone theoretically could reach based on their physical and mental qualities. In my definition, it’s a theoretical level of functioning.

A Push

Do you know people who were so promising but never got anywhere? We all do. They seem to have squandered their potential. And some do that out of personal choice, whilst others seem to have missed the opportunities needed to develop their potential.
But potential requires energy to develop. A rock on the top of a mountain has the potential to develop kinetic energy. It’s the gravity that causes it. But as long as nobody gives the rock a push, the potential is not utilised.
Unlike a rock, people can push themselves and exploit their own potential. People can stretch their potential by going beyond what other people believe they are capable of. But it requires discipline and effort. Nobody will excel in sports without discipline.
A coach once said that discipline is good for us, effort is not. Discipline reduces the need to put effort in something. If you exercise regularly (discipline), you wil not have to put extra effort in losing weight later. The effort compensates the lack of discipline. Of course discipline requires some effort too, mostly in the form of sacrifice. You invest time in one challenging thing (running a marathon), which means you cannot spend time on something easier (hanging out with friends).

Not alone

We like to think that we are responsible for our own destiny and so too many people think they are responsible for their own development. But even with the willpower to invest time and effort in exploiting one’s potential, most people cannot do it alone. The social (or motivational) context will shape the motivation. An athlete has parents, friends, peers, coaches to help. In an organization, the motivational context is shaped by the leader, the peers and the team members.
To develop this motivational context, leaders need to understand what people need. We all have this need to feel competent, to have autonomy and to feel a sense of purpose or belonging. In a safe and trusting context like this, people will be able to learn, experiment, make mistakes. They do not have to fear punishment when making a mistake. As they develop their competence, they will also be able to take on more responsibilities. A lack of autonomy would kill this drive. People who grow, outgrow limited spaces. The space they have must grow together with them. If not, they will find other spaces that fit.
A sense of belonging and purpose seems to be vital to developing potential. Children learn to walk and ride their bike because there’s a purpose. That purpose might be to be able to pick up things, carry toys, move faster, open doors. Or the purpose might be the parental satisfaction. If you have children, you might remember what you did when the child took its first step. You applauded, you cheered, you cried. Imagine that a leader would do that every time a member of the team would achieve a next level of competence and performance, thus developing potential further?

What you can do.

This is what you can do as a leader:

  • Build knowledge about basic psychological needs of people and how you can influence motivation.
  • Create a context that is safe enough for people to experiment.
  • Scan continuously for (hidden) potential. People will sculpt their job to the potential they have.
  • Challenge people by giving them difficult assignments too early, and be available to help. Explore the limits. Check people’s resilience.
  • Hire people because of their (suspected) future potential. And start developing as of day 1.
  • Don’t mind if someone with potential is hard to handle. Engage in debate and discussions.
  • Applaud achievement and progress. Praise people when they go beyond what they were able to do yesterday.
  • Be available to discuss progress (give feedback), values, purpose and to offer help during difficult moments.
  • Make sure people learn things they want to learn or because it’s meaningful, not because you ask them to.
  • Never put a lid on potential development. You harm the person and you harm your organization.
  • Encourage people to leave your organization if and when the context you can offer does no longer offer opportunities for growth.

Potential needs a push to develop. And that push comes from within but most certainly also comes from others.

Are you a 70-20-10 Development Leader ?

boatA new development model?

70:20:10 is a framework for development, developed in 2002 by Charles Jennings. He is a global and creative expert on development solutions. The basis of this model is research that covers 5 decades.  It’s a strategic model for learning and development. The basis of the model is that to develop, people need to be (1) aware of a current or future need and (2) feel motivated to do something about that need. Awareness comes from experience. It can come from feedback, mistakes, watching other people’s reactions, failing, feeling not being up to a task. Experience is the single most important source for development.
According to the model, development comes

  • 70% from experience: on-the-job,  tasks and problem, tough challenges.
  • 20% from feedback and coaching: social, informal learning, feedback from people (often the manager).
  • 10% from formal learning: courses, reading.


The 70:20:10 Learning Pyramid

It’s not about the exact numbers.  The numbers can vary depending on the company or the industry. It’s about the idea. This model of development goes beyond the classroom and formal training. It promotes the workplace as a place of development. That is extremely important.

Why now ?

The idea behind 70:20:10 are not new. So why is the model relevant today? Organizations understand that formal training alone won’t make the difference. To understand the limitations of the 10%’ is one thing. Implementing a development strategy with the 70% and 20% is another. This model offers a truly integrated and holistic approach for development. And as organisations are facing new challenges, they need to leave old paradigms behind and adopt new ones. This requires new ways of development. This requires faster learning. This evolution requires radical changes in the development landscape. And that’s why the 70:20:10 offers an attractive framework for development
Just a few examples of how learning is evolving.
Learning Paradigms

The development leader

70:20:10 provides a framework to both HR and leaders. A leader might already use the 70:20:10. But there is always room for improvement. The framework can help leaders to adopt various development roles.

  1. Development through stretching assignments (70%)

    Experience is the true teacher. A leader can shape experience. 
People learn the job on the job.
    Increased business speed makes learning on the job vital. To stay ahead people need to learn faster, better and smarter. People learn to do a tough job by doing it. A Stretching assignment stimulates development. It pulls people out of their comfort zone. Small mistakes and errors must be tolerated, encouraged and celebrated !

    The only thing worse than learning from experience, is not learning from it.

    It’s all about matching the right experience to the employee’s development stage.
 If managers know the work environment and the employee they can match the (stretching) experience to the employee. Learning on the job is no longer exclusively individual. The best way to solve complex problems is to collaborate.
    Managers should stimulate peer-learning. Everyone faces the future together. Partnership and pro-active collaboration are key. to learn and to reach common goals faster.

  2. Development through Community Learning (20%)

    Learning is social. People learn with and through others. Effective leaders urge their people to “buddy up” on projects. They can motivate to shadow others and to learn from peers. They can foster collaboration beyond silos. They can stimulate learning through common goals. And last they can invite people to take part in professional networks inside or outside the organization.
    People tend to learn well in an environment that encourages conversation.
    Leaders play an important role in launching and nurturing professional communities. They can ask an engaged employee to even start a community. Learning communities are self steering. Members share professional interest and have similar responsibilities. Sharing best practices and ideas is crucial for development.

  3. Development through coaching (20%)

    Managers do not need to be the best teachers. They need to be great coaches.
    Coaching aims at providing many things like:

    • Individual attention and personal support
    • Improved communication among team members
    • Discovery and development of potential
    • Acceleration and maintenance of positive changes
    • Peek performance from people and teams

    Coaching is not always one-on-one. Managers can also coach teams. Team coaching is right when dealing with real organizational challenges; or when there are complex work issues . The leader should ask reflective questions and listen. He or she encourages the team to take action and to solve the problem.

  4. Development through overall Learning Improvement

    Formal learning (10%)  still has its merits. Leaders boost the impact of formal learning by doing one single thing: Setting clear expectations before the training takes place. This increases  the impact of training immensely. It also makes it much more sustainable. 
Clear expectations will make learning more meaningful for the employee. People are naturally motivated to do things they find meaningful. They will walk the “extra mile”. They will take pride in demonstrating what they’ve learned at work.


Leaders are responsible for developing their people. They spend time on this. They gain time through developing more delegation opportunities. Leaders prepare employees for the daily challenges. They make them more resilient for change. They give them the right opportunities to leave their comfort zone. This is priceless.
70:20:10 is a very interesting model. It brings development into the business and into the workplace. The line manager becomes the driver of people development. Development is no longer the domain of HR alone.
By working together, you can apply the 70. Or you can judge that the 20 is the right approach. Or you can apply both of them together. If you become aware of this, you can become even more pro-active in people development.
You could e.g. simply put the 70:20:10 pyramid on a wall in a meeting room. You can have regular conversations with your people about how to make it come “alive”. You could then coach your people. You can check if they need further 70% or 20% and how to organize this.
That would be truly sustainable. Much more than simply sending them to a training. So are you a 70:20:10 development leader?

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