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How Much Untapped Potential Is Out There?

, | October 17, 2023

by Brian McDonald

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

In last week’s Tuesday Reading, Laura Patterson referred to a meeting in an unremarkable conference room in Chicago in 2006 where several CIOs from the Big Ten Academic Alliance asked if MOR Associates might be the right partner to help develop leaders across their organizations. It is remarkable how the start-up of such an annual Leaders Program has had many beneficial ripple effects that catalyzed the untapped potential for thousands of individuals across higher education. Such a program wasn’t unique to the Big Ten Universities. Dozens of other institutions nationwide have also started similar leadership development cohorts. Their leaders and MOR saw how this opportunity unleashed the untapped potential of their workforce to lead from wherever they were in their organization.

Was this latent potential always there, waiting to be unleashed? Are organizations unknowingly stifling the energy and ideas people bring to their work? Even in companies with autocratic leadership cultures, one encounters workers who are leaders among their peers or leaders outside of work, such as coaches for their local athletic leagues or the mayor of their city.

Leaders Can Create the Environment and Opportunities that Unleash People’s Potential 

Taking a long-term view spanning decades, it is abundantly clear that leaders can create the culture and the work systems that stifle people’s potential. OR, leaders can create an environment that unleashes the untapped potential individuals possess.

For people to speak up and lead from where they are, it is important to create a safe environment where people believe they can do so without consequences. Nurturing an inclusive climate where people feel they belong, and their input is valued is foundational to drawing out their potential. Such an environment enables individuals to step up and contribute toward more efficient and effective ways to work.

Too many organizations have yet to create the environment or adopt the strategies designed to support people taking the initiative independently or to develop their leadership capabilities. Where do you see untapped growth potential in people in your department or unit? What strategies could you advance to invite others to explore their potential?

A Leadership Development Ecosystem Spawn Organically

Individuals or coalitions who have embraced the notion that you can take the initiative without asking for permission have channeled their energy into multiple strategies for developing talent. In addition to enhancing their leadership capability, they have built a remarkable ecosystem inviting others to explore their potential.

Organization-based leadership programs, coaching, mentoring, annual leadership development goals, feedback and feedforward systems, and other initiatives enable this growth. IT Connects at the University of Wisconsin, Madison exemplifies how early investments in developing leaders can spawn further talent development efforts. IT Connects was started by a few MOR alums who saw the potential and decided to do something to keep the learning going. This is an excellent example of an initiative that created opportunities for many others.

IT Connects is an umbrella organization dedicated to community building through eleven different groups. Each of these eleven groups is co-chaired and coordinated by members of the information technology community and provides programming for members of their community. Each has a charter budget and offers specific programming. IT Connects groups include Women in IT, two different yearly IT conferences, coordination of MOR leadership experiences, several communities of practice, and more. This is an inspiring example where a few individuals created opportunities for many others to engage in activities designed to enhance their capabilities.  Other universities have similar locally grown initiatives, such as leadership boot camps or mentoring programs.

As work in this country evolves to include more hybrid and remote employees, engaging people across the enterprise, helps to create the connections and the community people value. This can create a more inclusive environment where people can bring their voices and further develop their capabilities.

As you reflect on your leadership journey, what’s one thing you would be most excited to do to provide an opportunity for others to develop their capabilities? The people you invest in will appreciate your interest in their potential. 

Last week, we asked what your university or workgroup has done best to develop leadership in others.

  • 25% said developing a leadership pipeline
  • 20% said mentoring or locally supported coaching program 
  • 18% said local leadership initiatives (boot camp, IT Academy, other)
  • 14% said annual leadership development goals in performance planning
  • 13% said a common language and common toolset to increase collaboration
  • 10% said feedback and feedforward to others

Our institutions have undertaken many significant initiatives to develop leadership in others, the most important of which is to create the legacy of a leadership pipeline to provide long-term sustainability and continuity for our institutions. One of the highest forms of leadership is to enable others to lead. What can you do today to take one small step toward that long-term vision?