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Do You Realize Your Potential?

Potentia International helps its clients understand themselves and answer some of the most difficult career questions.

Be honest: Talking about yourself for hours on end can be pretty darn enjoyable. As for talking about yourself for hours on end while another person not only listens but also takes notes? That’s downright thrilling! During a recent visit to the offices of the Generative Leadership Group Inc., a consulting firm based in Somerville, New Jersey, I spent an entire day indulging in this thrill.

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In 1999, GLG partnered with the British company Potentia International to bring Potentia’s unique “profiling” system to North America. The Potentia System, as the methodology is known, is designed to help people answer major career questions: What type of work will allow me to make the greatest contribution? Which career path fits best with my values and aspirations? How can I grow as a person by developing my latent abilities? What kind of work will give me the most pleasure, unleash the most energy, and feel like fun?

These are, of course, the questions at the heart of the career choices being made by tens of millions of people around the world. The new economy’s promise was that rank-and-file employees would have a wider range of choices than ever before about the kinds of companies they could work at, the kinds of work they could do inside those companies, and the kinds of experiences they could have during their career journey.

True, many of those workers are now more concerned with simply hanging on to their jobs than finding their true calling. And many of their colleagues, pink slip in hand, are wondering if it’s worth taking a gig at Starbucks to pay the rent until they find their next real job. But the dream of the “perfect” job dies hard, and many disillusioned workers are using the current shakeout to reevaluate just what it was they had wanted to do before the lure of stock-option riches clouded their perspective.

With all these choices comes the responsibility to make decisions — hence the Potentia System. Of course, such questions matter to more than the people answering them; they also matter to the companies that those people work for. In the competition for talent, holding on to great people is just as important as attracting them in the first place. And one crucial part of holding on to people is helping them feel like they’re learning, growing, succeeding — realizing their potential. So it’s no wonder that Potentia can count among its clients a long list of well-known companies, including BP Amoco, Agilent Technologies, and Nortel Networks.

According to Adrian Savage, who cofounded Potentia in 1990 with Richard Scriven, people are happiest when their work corresponds with their values and challenges them to fulfill their potential. Indeed, Potentia’s focus on potential — right down to its name — is what sets it apart from other firms that provide employee-assessment services. “We help people explore the possibilities that are open for their future,” says Savage, 54. “Most often, the possibilities that we’re aware of for our future are founded on our past. We know about them because we’ve already done them, or we’ve done part of them. But what about the things that you might enjoy and be successful at, but that you’ve never come into contact with?”

Kimm Hershberger, who leads Nortel’s alliance strategy and business-innovation team, was profiled in September 1999. “The profile was focused on looking forward,” says Hershberger, 33. “It wasn’t the fill-in-the-20-boxes-and-we’ll-tell-you-if-you-meet-the-leadership-standards-for-today type of approach.” Hershberger’s “values profiling” affirmed that in working for Nortel, she is in the right place at the right time. “I thrive on extreme learning, and on feeling like I have an impact and a sense of integrity,” she says. “And true to my generation, I have trouble with hierarchy and rules. Nortel is a good match: You don’t have to be a certain age or a certain level to step up to leadership.”

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One reason for looking forward, Savage argues, is that ability is less a matter of innate talent than of habit, circumstance, and motivation. And those things can be changed. “It isn’t mere political correctness to say that we all have huge amounts of potential,” he says. “We can all do most things pretty well. The difference between people lies in the access that they have to their potential. In all walks of life, people in difficult and unusual circumstances — for example, people in war — do amazing things that they didn’t know they could do. It’s not that they couldn’t have done those things before. It’s just that nothing in their lives had ever called for those skills in the past.”

Savage doesn’t advocate going to war to bring your hidden abilities to the surface. Instead, Potentia simulates a range of situations and asks a series of questions that tease out potential that people don’t always know they have. The process is rigorous and scientific — which might come as a disappointment to those who hope to get started by sharing a few anecdotes from their childhood. And Savage is quick to warn that Potentia’s employees are neither therapists nor career counselors; rather, they are facilitators. Generally, a Potentia rep meets one-on-one with an individual client (eventually, the process will be Web-enabled) and goes through four steps: “values profiling,” “individual potential profiling,” “role playing,” and “development and succession planning.” The ultimate goal of all four steps is to find out which skills a person is using, which ones a person has but isn’t using, and which ones a person does not have yet but might be able to develop with a bit of effort. It is the latter two types of skills that represent potential. “They are the areas for growth,” says Savage.

Pssst… It’s Your Values Talking

During values profiling, the Potentia rep asks the client to think of a time when she had to make a decision with critical, long-term consequences for herself and for those close to her. The client selects cards with headings such as “stimulation,” “safety,” and “personal growth,” and places them in order of importance in making that decision. The Potentia rep asks several more questions about imagined or remembered situations and has the client rearrange the cards accordingly.

The point of the exercise? To find out what your values are. “One of the main drivers that will either help people actualize their potential or work against them is their values,” Savage says. “Have you ever been in a situation and felt like, ‘I’m not really comfortable here. This isn’t me’? That’s your values talking. They’re saying that there’s something about this situation that either doesn’t allow you to utilize values or skills that you think are important, or that requires you to do things that you don’t think are important or enjoyable. Most of us are very unwilling to compromise on core values.”

In the second part of values profiling, the client uses a different set of cards with headings such as “risk taking,” “justice/fairness,” and “autonomy.” These cards represent priorities, which, Savage says, are shaped by values. Again, the client organizes the cards in order of importance. This time, questions include, “What is most important in helping you feel good about yourself?” When tension exists in an office, it often can be traced to differing values, says Savage: “If you place a low priority on risk taking and your boss has a high priority on risk taking, then your boss might see your caution and your wish to do things properly as a lack of initiative and an overconcern with detail. And you might look at your boss and think, He never finishes anything. He jumps into things without checking all the facts. Now is any of that true? Most certainly not. But we interpret the world through our own values. And we interpret what other people do through our values, not theirs.”

Values also influence both decisions and motivation. “In generating the kind of future that you want, you need motivation,” says Savage. “Otherwise, you won’t do it. Exploring your motivations can clear things up for you: ‘If I do things in this area, they speak to me in this way — and that’s energizing and exciting. But in this area, I don’t find things that energizing, and it will be a struggle to continue to get results day after day.’ “

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Ways of Thinking, Habits of Action

During “individual potential profiling,” clients get to explore the way that they think. They read a brief write-up about a phenomenon (mine discussed corporate mergers) and then respond to questions like, “What are the key elements that make up this topic?” and “What options are available to deal with possible problems?” Says Savage: “We’re not interested in what people know or don’t know about the topic. We’re interested in their thought process. Some people will speculate for hours. Others are very uncomfortable speculating. Some people jump straight to seeing a topic in a very broad canvas. For others, if there’s no detail, they can’t respond easily.”

Savage has found that those who can speculate comfortably are often highly successful. “Most people spend most of their working hours collecting and analyzing data,” he says. “Significantly fewer people cross the boundary to using intuition and inference, and think broadly, rather than in-depth. But operating where there is no data allows for a much wider range of possibilities. Particularly in very large corporations, the lag time between seeing what needs to be done and having it in place can be long. If you wait until you have all the data you need before acting upon it, by the time that action has come to fruition, you’ll be well behind other people.”

“Role playing” is the third — and potentially most rancorous — step of the Potentia System. Meant to assess one’s “habits of action,” it puts people in conflict situations. Savage assigned me the part of a manager at a factory that may have been responsible for contaminating community water. Meanwhile, Savage himself acted as, variously, an environmental activist, a mayoral aide, and a local newspaper reporter. His questioning tested drive (Did I actively try to deal with the problem?), resilience (As new information emerged, did I incorporate that information into my decisions?), and empathy (How skillfully did I work with people whose views differed from my own?). As it turned out, I didn’t deal so skillfully at all with Savage’s alter egos. I told one of them that I found him naive — meaning that I earned an “F” in empathy, or, in Potentia parlance, that empathy was a “stress zone” that was “extremely demanding.”

The final step of profiling is “development and succession planning.” After the Potentia rep and the client look over the test results, says Savage, the client is moved “from the artificial environment of spending a day with me to the real environment of the client’s work.” Clients answer questions like, “What challenges does my work put forward?” and “How do those challenges relate to what I’ve been experiencing in this process?” Adds Savage: “If you’re seeing that you have areas of talent that are at the moment untapped and underutilized, and you’re going to develop them, you have to start from somewhere. And the only somewhere you can start from is where you are now. So what opportunities — which you may not have previously recognized — will allow you to develop in the areas that you want to develop in?”

Who Am I and Why Am I Here?

Clients are rarely shocked by the outcome of their profiling. “If something is surprising, then I normally think it’s wrong,” Savage says. “No one knows you better than you do.” Profiling often tells clients what they already know, or at least suspect, but that doesn’t mean it’s not useful. “Over time, we all tend to become habituated to certain ways of seeing the world,” Savage says. “Certain values have worked for us. But life goes on, and every so often we need to be able to revisit and reawaken the full range of options that are available to us — and then we get to choose again.”

Among the options that Nortel’s Hershberger realized were available to her was a more significant role in leadership. “I see the world in terms of patterns and systems and discontinuities,” she says. “The profiling determined that I have huge potential to expand those abilities — not to do today’s job, not to do tomorrow’s job, but to become the type of leader who is needed a year out. I’ve used that information to evolve my role and my team’s focus.”

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Hershberger has also been able to apply some of the lessons that she learned about herself to her colleagues. “Another coworker who had been profiled and I realized that when we’re at a meeting, we often use the Potentia framework,” she says. “When people are talking past one another, we see how they’re thinking at different levels and missing each other. And we help them make connections more quickly.”

Hershberger is not the only one who has benefited from her experience with Potentia. “People say to me, ‘You have changed my life,’ ” says Savage. “I have not changed their lives at all. They have changed their lives — because they have come to a clear understanding of something that was probably always there, but that they couldn’t see clearly and thus couldn’t act upon. I provide them with a mirror so that they can see themselves.”

But enough about Potentia: What about me? Well, according to my values profiling, I place the highest value on “acceptance/inclusion,” defined by Potentia as “feeling liked or valued by others you hold in high regard.” And I place the lowest value on “personal growth,” defined as “feeling that you are developing as a unique individual.” When I told Savage that I thought the phrase “unique individual” reeked of New Age navel gazing, he issued a warning: “Some things that we don’t value, we view with disdain. It’s fine if this doesn’t resonate for you. But if you were running a 5,000-person division of a company, it would resonate strongly for some of those people. Your disdain could make it difficult to communicate with them.”

I’m not, at present, running a 5,000-person division. But it’s still something to keep in mind — because part of the reason why Potentia even exists is that these days, the pace of change in the workplace is so fast. “Your whole environment can change in the space of 12 to 18 months,” Savage says. “It has become much, much more important for individuals to be aware of and in charge of their own careers.”

Read the Sidebar: Take-Home Test

Curtis Sittenfeld (curtis-sittenfeld@uiowa.edu), a former Fast Company staff writer, is a graduate student in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. Learn more about Potentia International on the Web (www.potentiasystem.com).

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