The best leaders want to get the best out of their employees. They want people to unleash their talents and problem-solving skills, tackle big challenges, and contribute to innovative, forward-thinking cultures.

But employees need to feel empowered and inspired if they’re going to achieve and sustain this kind of performance. They need to feel supported and know their managers see them as more than the sum of their skills, credentials, and resumes.

Often, there is a gap between the ideal and the reality. According to a survey by KPMG, 85% of CIOs consider an innovative or experimental culture to be “quite” or “very important” to their success, but 35% of HR leaders say their current culture is more task-oriented than innovative or experimental.

If leaders want to close this gap, they need to help people reach their full potential — not just as task performers, but as human beings. 

“Companies realize that qualities like focus, empathy, collaboration and inclusion are essential to win the future,” Arianna Huffington writes. “But we can’t simply flip a switch and turn those qualities on. To access our creativity and ability to innovate in the middle of uncertainty and chaos around us, our immediate emotional needs have to be met first.”

So how can leaders meet those needs? How can they boost people’s sense of trust, belonging, and connectedness — all key dimensions of well-being, according to the Thrive XM Index? How can they tap into people’s ambitions and motivations, unlocking individual and organizational potential?

It starts with a mindset shift: Instead of focusing on the job, leaders need to focus on the people.

Unlocking people’s potential

For leaders to make this shift, they need to start by focusing on employees’ capabilities and then design work processes and systems around them — not the other way around.

This is among the key findings of SAP SuccessFactors’ recent white paper, “Building Future-Capable Workforces.” Leaders need to understand that people are dynamic, with capabilities and motivations that change over time. And they need to hone their ability to spot human qualities — often considered “soft skills.” 

According to the report, two personality characteristics are particularly relevant when matching people to opportunities: curiosity and openness to experience. Research shows curious people are better able to navigate uncertainty and ambiguity, and that openness to experience is linked with creativity and divergent thinking.

Leading for the future

Few leaders would be surprised to hear that curiosity and openness are beneficial. What’s more important — and more challenging — is identifying and developing them in authentic ways.

Starting this process requires not only focusing on the here and now, but also keeping an eye on the future, according to Terrence Seamon, an executive career transition consultant at The Ayers Group. 

“Smart leaders are thinking about succession,” Seamon says. They ask themselves questions such as, “Who could follow me in this role?” and, “Is there anybody on the team right now that could potentially be the next leader of this team or head of this project?” The answers may not be clear, but leaders can then create opportunities to develop the next generation — which means not only knowing what people are good at, but also who they are and what motivates them.

“You’ve got to give the team experiences that develop them,” Seamon says. “You’ve got to give them training opportunities and performance feedback. You’ve got to coach them right in the moment while they’re working, side by side. All those kinds of investments that a leader makes over time have the effect of shining a light on the people on the team who are beginning to materialize as future leaders.”

Just as important is recognizing that not every employee is a future leader. 

“Up is not the only way to grow in one’s career,” Seamon says. Some ambitious individuals are bound for future leadership roles, while others may aspire to grow in different ways, such as achieving mastery in their field.

“Don’t just take care of your stars,” he says. “Also look for your solid players that you wouldn’t ever want to lose, and make sure that you’re helping them grow.” 

The ability to understand these differences isn’t just good for individual employees. According to the Thrive XM Index — a research report that measures the connections between employee experience, performance and organizational resilience — understanding employees’ growth ambitions and motivations and enabling them to grow is linked to key business outcomes. For example, the organizations that were best at enabling people to learn new skills reported 33% increases in engagement, 31% in retention likelihood and 28% in work satisfaction.

Creating a learning climate

Ultimately, the leader’s task is to create an environment where employees feel they can learn, grow, and develop themselves – and where the full range of their contributions are valued. SAP SuccessFactors’ report found that employees who perceive a learning climate — where they have time to learn new skills, opportunities to try new things, and responsibility for their own development — are more engaged, more connected with colleagues, and more likely to retain control of their workload and workday.

Seamon suggests that leaders encourage this climate with “career discussions” — regular one-on-ones with employees focused on the future. Realistically, these might happen once every few months, but they create a space for people to think beyond the present and surface opportunities for growth. 

Possible questions include:

  • Do you feel you are learning and growing in this role in a way that feels good to you? 
  • Where do you see yourselves two years from now? Five years from now?
  • What are your career goals?
  • What’s one skill you want to learn or project you want to take on?
  • What’s a talent or skill you feel you haven’t been able to use that you’d like to unleash?

Employees may not have answers to these questions, Seamon says.

“They might have very little in mind or maybe only a foggy notion, and that’s OK. That might be where they are at the moment, but it’s still worthwhile for leaders to have these conversations.”

When those conversations happen in authentic ways, it’s an investment in people and their potential — one that can yield significant returns for years to come.

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  • Gregory Beyer

    Director of Content Strategy, Thrive Global

    Greg is Thrive Global’s Director of Content Strategy. Previously, he worked at The Huffington Post as senior editor to Arianna Huffington, while also overseeing features coverage. Greg studied English and creative writing at Colgate University and journalism at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism. His writing and reporting have appeared in The New York Times, The New York Times Book Review, The Wall Street Journal, and the Los Angeles Times.