Are you at risk of underutilizing your team’s potential?

5 traps that prevent leaders from maximizing the extraordinary talent within their teams

Melissa Rosenthal
7 min readAug 19, 2020
Image by Melissa Rosenthal using Bikablo

This morning I reached out to some of my favourite leaders around the world. I chose the participants, not for their impressive titles or significant leadership remit (although some of them definitely tick those boxes) but rather, because they are leaders I’ve had the chance to observe and admire for their values and commitment to their teams.

I asked them all one question…

”What is the first word that comes to mind when you think about the potential in your team?”

Many of the responses I received were full of future-focused optimism — works like ‘hope’, ‘possibility’, ‘unlimited’, ‘promise’, ‘dreams’ and ‘excited’. Some focused on appreciation with words including ‘extraordinary’, ‘strongest assets’, ‘confidence’, ‘authorities’ and ‘headspace’. One focused on action with ‘grow/nurture’.

The unifying factor in all of the responses was the recognition that human potential enables the creation of future value for the individuals and for the team.

As the founder and/or leader of a fast-growth company, there’s no doubt that, while that value is recognised, curating a growth trajectory for each member of your team competes for your attention with a multitude of urgent and important issues. Your products, your customers, your funding and all the critical in-between elements that must connect to make your business succeed. And with all that, no matter how much you care, sometimes your people lose this competition.

That loss is unlikely to cause an immediate problem but when someone has been in their role for a while, typically their proficiency and capability increase — so does the likelihood that they will begin looking for new challenges. That’s hardly surprising given you probably recruited them (in part) for their growth mindset. But wouldn’t you rather those new challenges came from within your company? After all, you have invested in getting them this far. If they go elsewhere you’re likely missing the opportunity to create something wonderful for them and leaving unrealized value on the table — that sounds like lose-lose to me.

Think about your team. How would answer these questions?

  • How well are you creating opportunities for your team members to uncover their full potential in their contribution to your company’s success?
  • What potential exists in your team today that you are not accessing?

If you’re unsure or unhappy with your answers perhaps it’s time to consider whether you’re at risk of underutilizing your team’s potential.

5 traps that prevent leaders from optimizing potential

1. Suffering from nearsightedness

When the opportunity to do something new is allocated within a team, one of the most common frustrations I hear from team members is…

“don’t they realise I’ve actually done that before? It’s like they’ve forgotten I had a life before I came here. I’ve told them about it but I guess they weren't listening.”

To them, it feels like you’re nearsighted and can only recognise the work they’ve done most recently, when in fact they may have some very relevant experience to bring to your current problem. This is frustrating when they haven’t had an opportunity to share information about their experience with you and even more so when they feel like they’ve shared stories of this applicable experience with you and it seems that you’ve forgotten.

2. Assuming an external hire is the best option

Fast growth is often characterised by a series of firsts — entering new markets, launching new products, introducing new systems, choosing new suppliers and partners. Each time you’re faced with one of these firsts you have a choice -to give the opportunity to an existing team member or hire someone new to take it on.

When existing capacity is fully utilised (i.e. your people are busy) many leaders have a tendency to automatically assume they need to hire someone new to lead the latest “first” — without first considering who, in their current team, might be willing and able to take it on. Often that’s because it feels harder to shuffle the deck chairs than to add another chair — but it’s important to consider the impact to morale if all the fresh, exciting opportunities as handed to new people when others feel like they have worked hard to earn their stripes.

3. Playing favourites

Conversely, there is a trap in always giving (or appearing to always give) the same “talent” or “hi-potentials” in your team the opportunity to do the new and interesting things. The appearance of playing favourites runs the risk of disenfranchising some of your most loyal team members if they start to believe that, no matter what they achieve or how hard they work, they won't be given any of those opportunities.

There is also another version of playing favourites that I have seen cause significant damage in otherwise healthy teams. It’s what I like to call the ‘HOLA syndrome’ — the Hero Of Last Arrival. This tends to happen when someone new (and fabulous) joins the team and has some significant early wins. The leader, so excited by these wins (and their hiring choice) turns the new person into a hero, putting them on a pedestal and praising them endlessly, which when overdone, risks both the successful integration of the new person into the team and the sense of value felt by existing team members.

4. Adopting a “one size fits all” approach

As teams scale and roles change, offering learning opportunities becomes more important to guide the development of team members. From the creation of these offerings, the L&D role often emerges with the specific remit of curating a learning program. Sometimes these programs feel ‘out of the box’ rather than tailored to individual needs. Often these ‘one size fits all’ offerings are based on levels of authority or seniority in a team. For example, because you’re a Director you get access to option A and because you’re a VP you get access to option B. The larger the team the more likely this will occur as efficiency and relativity become major concerns.

I’m not saying it’s a bad idea to consider, efficiency, consistency and transparency when designing your L&D offerings — it’s commercially necessary and fair. The caution here is that if done without also retaining focus on each individual’s goals, preferences and needs, it could well be a waste of time and effort.

5. Relying on a counteroffer

I wish I had a dollar for every time someone has told me a story of how it took resigning (with a strong new offer in hand) before they felt like their potential was recognised by their current leader. At that point, making a counteroffer in the hope of retaining your team member says to them…

“oops, sorry, it took someone else recognising your value for me to realise I needed to do more for you.”

Given that they’re prepared to resign, you’ll probably have to offer something momentous to change their mind. The risk in relying on the counteroffer is that you won't be able to change their mind and you will lose some amazing talent. Or, you will change their mind but the trust in your relationship is significantly impaired as a result. There is also some risk associated with the precedent this sets for the rest of the team.

So, now that we’ve covered the traps, let’s talk about what you can do to avoid them…

Here are my 4 tips for making the most of your team’s potential:

1. Lead with your values

This might sound a bit obvious but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve told by a leader that fairness is an important value to them — only to watch them give opportunities to the same people over and over again, leaving others wondering what they need to do to be given a chance. That inconsistency reduces engagement and undermines trust in the team.

The trick here is to be open and transparent about how your team can expect the company values (whatever they might be) to show up in your decision making — and then demonstrate those values through your actions.

2. Learn and capture your team’s history

Take time to really get to know your team’s history. Understand what they’ve done before and the skills they’ve acquired. Find a way to record this somewhere in the company, in a searchable way, so that when you’re looking for particular skills or experiences the information will be easily accessible.

3. Consider history when scoping new roles

You’ve gone to the trouble of learning and capturing the historical information — so don’t forget to use it. As you’re considering adding new roles to the team and thinking carefully about the skills you need, take the time to review what you already have. You might find that the role you create looks different than you first thought because you can leverage capabilities within the team.

One note of caution here — this is not about adding more responsibilities to your already busy team members. Rather it is thinking creatively about how you might reconfigure multiple roles to make the most of the potential you have at hand.

4. Co-create futures

Schedule time to ask questions about the hopes and dreams of each of your team members. What would they like to do next? What would they like to try? What would they like to learn? What can you do to help them achieve those things?

Revisit these conversations, either when significant milestones are approaching or on a regular (e.g. annual basis). Find a structure for the conversation that will help both you and your team members do the pre-work that will allow you all to make the most of the time. While each person owns their own future, as their leader, your support and actions can make an enormous difference in helping them achieve their potential.

Here are the links to the previous articles in this series

Introduction: The hard truth about soft skills

Purpose: Why does your company exist?

People: How to hire the people you need when you need them

Performance: How to build a performance culture with people at the heart

Process: How to avoid playing “collaboration catch up” as your team scales

I’ve gathered all five of these articles into one convenient e-book. If you’d like a copy please email me Follow me here to make sure you stay up to date with my latest articles.