I recently had an energizing and candid conversation with a talented professional, just starting out in his career.  The topic of conversation itself was common enough, but his mindset was striking to me. We were discussing whether or not he should stay in his current job, and his driving force was not the fact that it was a highly compensated, stable, and visible position, but how much he would learn and be actively developed while he was in it.  Everything else was negotiable.

As a people manager and a coach, I hear this perspective more and more often with younger generations of talent, and I find it inspiring.  Not because it is easy to positively affect one’s growth and development, but because of the passion for learning that I see in our future leaders, and the rewarding benefits it yields for them and for organizations.

The Role of The Best Boss

My colleague Duncan Ferguson has conducted extensive and groundbreaking research on what makes someone an extraordinary manager, and the practice of going above and beyond to help one realize his/her potential has been identified as a defining characteristic of a Best Boss.  This idea of “Activating Potential,” as it is termed in the research, is defined as being a positive advocate to help individuals take action that allows them to see and then realize their potential.

Here’s how one person described her Best Boss: “He would do all sorts of things to get me out of my comfort zone – push me, even sometimes provoke me. He saw the potential but also saw that I was holding something back and wouldn’t accept that I was giving everything I had to give.”  The Activate Potential trait is clear.

One who Activates Potential is viewed as making the development of another one’s skills a priority. And in today’s world, making and keeping priorities is no easy task. But if your boss makes your development a priority and puts employees’ interests and development needs in front of his/her own, that really gets noticed.

Implications of “Activating Potential”

The link between engagement and employee retention is not a new finding, but what makes for an engaged employee appears to be shifting.  In the interviews and conversations we have with employees who are just starting out in their careers, they are not even considering a long tenure in a company and therefore, their motivations to stay in a role are quite different than their predecessors.

As stated by a younger professional who was honest in her feelings toward her current employer, “I don’t expect to (or even want to) stay with the same company for my entire career so I need to build my portfolio of skills to make me marketable for my next job and company. I want my company to invest in my learning and growth as a professional. And, in return, I will work as hard as I can”.

While it is becoming evident that organizations (and even Best Bosses!) may not be able to keep talented employees for as long as they could have 15 years ago, our research and current thinking indicates that if we take this drive to develop seriously, and put time and effort into getting the best out of our people and activating their potential, they will likely be happier in a company for longer than they would otherwise.

My own example of a Best Boss was someone who embodied the trait of Activating Potential. He had more confidence in me than anyone and made me believe it through amazing development opportunities and a surprising amount of trust. I honestly feel that I would not be where I am today without that boss’ support. The incredibly positive impact of being developed is not a generational difference, but perhaps the importance of it for retention is becoming more critical than ever before.


What are some of the best ways that you have either activated someone else’s potential or been challenged to do so yourself?   What has been the impact of a learning and development culture in your organizations?

We’d love to hear your stories and advice on developing talent.  Reach out to us if you want to share, or if you want to learn more about Duncan’s Best Boss research.