Imagine this scene: You are seated in the board room where today’s top agenda is talking about CEO and C-suite succession candidates. All of these individuals are talented and skilled in their present roles and board members are hearing firsthand about their development plans. You are not at all surprised at the number of questions board members are posing about these leaders. But one question stands out for everyone: “Tell me what motivates her… does she really want the job?” Or “Does he really have fire in the belly?” In short, they want to make sure each of these individuals is excited for their work of the future. And board members and those in leadership roles have many observations that they believe give them an answer to this elusive question about whether someone is “motivated.”
It’s a fair question, but it is fraught with all kinds of difficulty. How do we really know if someone has potential? How can you show someone else you are motivated? How do you really gauge someone’s ambition? As a psychologist, I can tell you that it is human to guess about someone’s motivation or to judge it from a casual conversation. Because we can’t really “see” motivation, we hypothesize and infer and speculate about what really drives someone. For example, it’s easy to assume that the overtly enthusiastic and excited individual is much more motivated than the individual who is naturally quieter or more thoughtful. That assumption happens way too often.
Not only do we as human beings speculate about what drives others, so do organizations. Every single process I have seen that an organization uses to decide who has potential includes a motivational factor loosely labeled ambition or desire to move up or achievement orientation. That is fair, but how do we really know? One of the great myths of ambition is that those who are motivated will raise their hands. Or that they will always say “yes” to the next new assignment. That just isn’t true.
Some will raise their hands and maybe you do or have. And if you do raise your hand or say “yes,” it is partly about where you are right now and whether this is even a good time in your life to plunge into something new or challenging. I have had individuals tell me they were afraid to turn down a chance for a promotion because it would mean they would never get another chance. They worried that if they say “no” once, they have sent a message about their motivation, period.
Instead of tasking leaders with the job of finding out who is motivated, I would much rather task them with spotting and supporting potential. Motivation needs to be seen as both a characteristic and as situational. Let’s get rid of the words “motivation to move up” and replace them with “motivation to make a difference.”
Instead of tasking leaders with the job of finding out who is motivated, I would much rather task them with spotting and supporting potential.
Here are some of the behaviors leaders can use to spot potential in others. Individuals who are motivated to make a difference:
- Take the initiative to go above and beyond what the expectations are
- Find out what is important to their senior leaders and do things to support that
- Volunteer for special assignments when they have the chance
- Tend to be the “go to” person on the team whom others seek out for advice or help
- Bring ideas forward for how to make things better
These behaviors are visible and don’t require us to make assumptions about someone or for that someone to raise their hand.
When you find someone whom you believe has the potential to do more in the future, make it your job to awaken their motivation. Don’t just notice. Tell them what you see, take a chance on them, offer them learning opportunities and provide coaching when you can. Potential and motivation are not just static elements that we need to demonstrate or measure—they can be awakened.