Production Vs. Potential: What’s Best For Business?

Jesse Foreman is CEO of GSE.

One of my biggest complaints about the sports industry is the value teams put on the potential of a player. This has been a trend that I have always despised, and it is something people also tend to do in relationships and business. It has led to people passing up on some of the greatest players in sports, and the same is also happening with talent in a lot of businesses around the country. Let me give some examples from sports to show why we should start valuing production over potential, specifically in our promotional decisions. 

A Look At Some Sports History

There was a quarterback from Michigan who fell to the sixth-round pick number 199 in the 2000 NFL draft. After his career in Michigan, he finished in the top 10 of almost all Michigan QB records, and he only started two seasons. In the 25 games he started, he only lost five games and was named team MVP his senior season. He was a sure-footed, accurate passer who stood tall and worked through all his progressions. He completed almost 63% of his passes and led his team to some very big victories. He was also a skinny, awkward young man who did not look the part of QB. Not only did he not look the part, but he also ran a very slow 40 and only had a 24.5-inch vertical. He might have had the production, but most thought he had little potential in the NFL.

If you watch the NFL at all, you probably know I am referring to Tom Brady. It is a story told very often, and the other six QBs drafted have become folklore, with most of them finding little to no success in the NFL. The production was there for Tom Brady to see he could do it at the next level. While perhaps no one could have seen that he was going to win more Super Bowls than any NFL franchise has won, you could see he would be good. Now, he is referred to as the greatest NFL player of all time.

People value potential so much because it has “endless possibility.” A player with potential could become the greatest. The same could be said of the potential of Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan. Most would say that MJ is the greatest basketball player of all time (not saying this to spark a debate with LeBron fans because both have an argument). I am saying it to show that even MJ, with more production and lots of potential, was passed up by the Trail Blazers, in part because Bowie missed a lot of his college career with an injury, and there was the potential of what he could be without the injury. 

Promotion Based Off Production

So how does all this relate to business? In hiring, we often look for someone with production, but we start looking more for the potential when it is time to promote. We want the person who has the potential to grow into the next great leader of the company, maybe even a potential officer. So often in business, we hire the younger candidate with an education from a prestigious institute over an employee who has worked for us in a similar position and was great at their jobs. I believe this way of thinking is leading us astray.

I personally never had anything that resembled potential. I received terrible grades in school when I was younger. I did not graduate from a prestigious university. I was never the smartest, strongest, best looking or most athletic. Despite all of this, I have been known to produce great results. Recently in a debate with a friend about who was better at basketball, my friend said, “I dribble better, shoot better, block better, and I’m taller. What skill do you have better than mine?” I responded, “I win better.”

With production, you know what you are getting at the minimum, and with potential, you know what you could possibly get at the maximum. The problem with potential is that people rarely ever live up to their potential. I would venture to say that no one has ever lived up to their full potential since we are flawed as human beings. So, I suggest that we start evaluating talent based on what people actually show to us and what they actually do.

The old saying, “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush,” might not be about potential, but think of proven production as a bird in the hand and potential as two in the bush. It is time for the sports world, the business world and people, in general, to start valuing production over potential. 


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