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How Much Untapped Potential Do People Have?

| October 12, 2021

by Brian McDonald

[Today’s Tuesday Reading is from Brian McDonald, President of MOR Associates.  Brian may be reached at [email protected].]

How much potential do people have and how can we encourage or engage them to explore the answer to this question?
The same question applies to each of us as well. How much potential do you have that hasn’t come to the foreground?  What about the people with whom you have the privilege to engage with at work?  Or the people MOR has the opportunity to support in our leadership programs? 
In last week’s Tuesday Reading my dear friend and colleague Rick Fredericks shared how he started out as a stacker in a lumber mill, went on to take a job as a press operator, then became the plant trainer for other operators, and how this position brought him into HR. When we met, he was the internal trainer/consultant who was going to help implement self-directed work teams across various manufacturing plants.
Rick saw an untapped reservoir of initiative, ideas and talent in the employees who came to work everyday cranking out the orders they were scheduled to print. There were skeptics in management who questioned giving employees the ownership for running the workroom floor. There were skeptics in the workforce as well who doubted this hierarchal company was really going to let them make decisions.
Yet Rick became the advocate.  He proclaimed:

  • The people who came to work were far more capable than they were given credit for as individuals.
  • Supervisors were making decisions they knew less about than the operators.
  • Some in management were looking down and talking down to the people who were actually producing the product customers requested.

In the partnership with Rick, our shared mission became the quest to transform the way people could be empowered to make daily decisions to guide the work, support each other and deliver the desired results. We and many of the people on the workroom floor were committed to demonstrating just how much untapped talent the company had neglected to engage.
The hourly employees at these manufacturing plants made it evident when given ownership for running the floor that they were outdistancing the prior performance by measurable strides. There was autonomy along with accountability for producing results.

Rick was one of those kindred spirits we are fortunate to sometimes meet along our journey. Our connection was forged on our shared values. People have an ability to contribute more than we realize under the right work design. Everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect regardless of their role.
As the self-directed work system began functioning well, it was time for me to move on from this consulting. Rick and I parted ways though it seemed likely our paths would cross again.
How much more are people capable of when provided the right leadership style, strategy or opening so that they will step up?

One leader after another has returned to MOR workshops recounting how they went back and delegated to a greater extent only to find out to their surprise most people willingly took on work the manager was previously doing. Employees often see these tasks or projects as developmental opportunities. 
When there is a crisis, leaders repeatedly report back how gratifying it was to see so many people step up in these critical situations. With the right leadership or the right opening, people will step and sometimes surprise themselves.
Now back to Rick, who saw the company he worked for get bought some years later by a larger corporate entity that was focused on reducing costs and closing production centers. Rick decided this wasn’t the work his life was dedicated to doing.  Having heard he left the company, on several occasions I looked for Rick but there wasn’t a trace or trail to be found. He had gone off the grid.  I found out later he moved out to Colorado where his wife has taken on a new job.
Then there happened to be a memorial service for someone Rick worked with at his old employer.  I wanted to pay my respects to this person and his family by going to the church. As the service concluded and I turned to leave, in the very pew behind me was Rick, to my great surprise. My comment was, “where have you been all this time?” He was now back in Peterborough, NH, his hometown, helping a friend at a local tavern. 
It is interesting how the universe works in curious ways to introduce possibilities that align with our desired future state. Needless to say, Rick was eventually talked into coming to work for MOR Associates.

It was puzzling at first to hear he was reluctant to join MOR. He had lost some of his zest, some of his self-assurance, as a result of the company take-over and downsizing. He wasn’t sure he could facilitate like he used to. He wasn’t sure he could rekindle the excitement he had about the work and development MOR was doing.
How Do We Realize a Person’s Potential?

Within a year or two Rick turned into one the best program leaders MOR Associates has been fortunate enough to partner with in our quest to develop leaders. During the past twelve plus years, Rick has coached hundreds of emerging leaders and served as program leader for workshops with over 1,000 participants, many of whom routinely ask for him. Rick designed and continues to update the Lead From Where You Are offering for people earlier in the careers.
There is even a Rick Fredericks Award at the University of Nebraska. This is in honor of the contributions he made in helping build the IT community that was instrumental in creating OneIT @UN.
Rick might still be working in that tavern had we not encountered each other at the service for our colleague Gary. How much untapped potential would there have been left undiscovered.

Where might you stretch yourself? What do you want to be great at? What’s possible for your next chapter? How could you support the potential of those with whom you work or of those with whom you live? MOR has seen countless examples of where our philosophy of “stretch and challenge” has provided the support for people to realize more of their undiscovered potential.
We get to travel this way once best we know, why not make the most of the runway in front of you? Why not create the opportunity for others to see what’s possible?
Love You Brother!
Brian McDonald, President, MOR Associates
Postscript: Rick Fredericks is still working with MOR even after being diagnosed with ALS a few years ago. We appreciate his continued commitment and contribution to developing the potential in others.  Rick is navigating this challenging chapter by modeling concern for others, the joy experienced by being deeply engaged in life, and the grace he has demonstrated throughout his life.