The Addiction of Potential

I once heard a colleague say, “The longest time in a sales manager’s life is the time between first losing faith in someone until the time they do something about it.”

In sales leadership roles there is no shortage of things that cause professional heartburn, most of them are centered around the people on their team. Things like:

  1. Should I invest more time with an under-performer?
  2. Is it time to let an under-performer go?
  3. Where will I find my next superstar?

Objectively there are many reasons to let an under-performing salesperson go. Unfortunately, very few people can be objective when it comes to decisions about under-performers. Ending someone’s employment is never easy and never fun. Making the decision to let someone go, or to keep them, is often clouded by subjective and sometimes destructive bias. I have heard leaders agonize over whether or not they invested enough time in the onboarding and training process, the cost of an open territory is greater than the cost of keeping an under-performer, and the worst one being that a failed salesperson is a reflection of the sales manager which leads to the addiction of potential. Sales leaders are in the business of maximizing potential. We do it all day, trying to get the most out of our potential pipeline, marketing efforts, deals, and our people.

Potential is defined as:

  1. Having or showing the capacity to become or develop into something in the future.
  2. Latent qualities or abilities that may be developed and lead to future success or usefulness.

While both of these definitions sound appealing as it relates to sales performance, there are two elements that get overlooked when keeping someone because they have potential. The first is while you see it and want it for them they may not. As odd as it sounds not everyone wants to meet their own potential! Let’s face it, meeting your potential is hard work. It requires effort and often sacrifices. The second is potential speaks to future results, not past or even current performance.

If someone isn’t meeting your expectations regarding their potential, your best course of action is to address it live and in person. Having a productive conversation with an under-performer will require thought, planning, candor, listening skills, and commitment.


What are your standards for performance? What are the specific things you measure that lead to results? What activities do you expect your people to engage in, and in what frequency? What competencies must they have to be successful?


Once you have the answers to the questions above, and their performance to those expectations, you want to plan your conversation carefully. What questions will you ask? What answers will you be listening for? And most importantly what specific behavioral changes will you need to see in the future?


Do not sugarcoat or tap dance around the issue. Be honest about your evaluation, back it up with facts, and express a true concern for their success. Just know you can’t want it more than they do!

Listening skills:

This is the toughest part of the conversation. After stating your concern ask them some strong questions like:

  1. How do you feel you are doing?
  2. Why do you think that?
  3. What is standing between you and your definition of success?

Then allow them to respond. Get comfortable with the long awkward pauses.


What are they going to commit to in order to meet your expectations and live up to their potential? It is critically important this come from them and not just repeating what you told them needs to happen. That’s not commitment.

To be clear, this might not work, and you may have misread their potential, or at the very least their desire to meet their potential. If this is the case don’t be afraid to ask them if they’d like to discuss a graceful and dignified exit strategy. Your goal is to shorten the time from losing faith in them to you both doing something about it.

If you would like to receive a free Job Benchmark report to clearly define your expectations send us an email with “EXPECTATIONS” in the subject line.