The Potential for What? Podcast: Episode 1 – Ewa Priestley

Unlocking potential through job fulfilment with Ewa Priestley – The Potential for What? Podcast

Ewa Priestley, VP Head of Learning, Diversity and Org Development at Miro joins Jo Taylor, Managing Director of Let’s Talk Talent to discuss a range of topics all connected to helping unlock the potential in people.

In today’s episode we talk about:

❤️ Job fulfilment

🏋️‍♀️ Bringing your whole self to work

🤫 Quiet quitting,

📈 How to measure potential

⛔️ And why Ewa thinks businesses stick to traditional outdated models that are no longer fit for purpose

Join us on the first episode of our new “The Potential for What? Podcast”. We’ve got a lot to get through, so let’s jump straight in.

How to listen to this podcast:

Links shared in this episode:

Related Podcast Episodes

Related Blog Posts

Find out what talent you have on your bench

Transcript of Episode 1: The Potential for What? Podcast with Ewa Priestley

Jo Taylor 

Hi, everybody. I’m Jo, MD of Let’s Talk Talent. And welcome to the first podcast in our new series: “Potential for what?” I’m really excited because I’m joined today by Ewa Priestley, talent development leader. And we’re going to talk today about potential for what. What makes potential? How do you spot it? And ultimately, how do you harness it both in individuals, teams and organisations? So welcome Ewa.

Ewa Priestley 

Thank you, Jo, I’m super excited that you invited me today. And I hope I can share something that will be of value for you and for your listeners.

Jo Taylor 

Brilliant. So let’s start by a sort of meta question at the beginning: how do you define potential?

Ewa Priestley 

If you asked me this question a few years ago, I would have given you probably the most commonly used answer, which evolves somewhat around a nine box definition, learning agility models – but it’s a boring one, if you want my honest opinion, and I’m not entirely sure if it is still a relevant one.

So how I would identify or define potential today is where the company’s evolving needs to satisfy the problems, or solve the problems, that their customers have, are met with the needs that the employees have in terms of achieving their job fulfilment.

And I think there is now a growing trend that starts to talk about job fulfilment, rather than engagement. And I’m super, super excited to read the Blind Spot, which is a book recently released by Gallup around the crisis of happiness and what it means for people to be fulfilled at work. Because I believe that what potential is going to become – and that’s obviously my personal opinion – is how the companies can harness the combination of factors involved in the job fulfilment, to enable their employees to realise their full potential and performance within the context of the organisation. And that will vary greatly, individual by individual. So I think that finding some form of numerical frameworks like we tried to do in the past is going to become harder and harder.

Jo Taylor 

So why do you think we still stick to the nine box grid? Because I have an allergic reaction to it, and I talk about it in our Succession Planning White Paper around that it’s old, it’s antiquated, we need to throw away those old tools and templates.

Why do we think a lot of businesses stick with the same traditional talent management models?

Ewa Priestley 

Well, my personal belief is that because it is the comfort of predictability that these models offer. Are they relevant today, and in the future? I believe they are becoming less and less, or they have already become irrelevant, but because they give us some sense of control, and they give us some sense of answers, we continue to use them, even though I would imagine a lot of people who will be listening to this podcast will also be questioning whether these models are relevant and effective today.

So I think it’s because we are just a little bit fearful, to go into a white space and redesign something or completely invent something different, because we don’t know whether it’s going to work. I also believe that another reason why we stick to these old models is because they have had a lot of research behind them, a lot of efficacy, validity studies. We work in environments today, especially when I work – I work in the tech sector – where I often get asked: give me the evidence that this works. Give me the validity study that this approach makes sense; that it drives results. And if you are faced with that sort of binary question, it’s difficult as a talent professional to sometimes convince leaders that let’s give it a go, because we actually believe we should do it differently. But perhaps we should pioneer the answer and see what happens and not rely on management books and studies of the last 50 years. So I think it’s the second reason we stick to it. And the third one is that there is a growing body of research which says that to really understand human potential in the organisational context, you have to start looking at the dimensions of human behaviour that are not your typical measurable dimensions. It’s not things that you see very well; it’s not something that managers can put into metrics and rubrics and you can assign very simple KPIs on those things. I think that it’s becoming so much more about human qualities such as a sense of happiness, a sense of fulfilment, a sense of well being.

These are the concepts that are not widely researched yet and they haven’t been implemented into the potential models very well yet. And I think that there is a sense of trepidation, a sense of concern or fear in either talent community or in leadership as a whole, how we actually measure that. How we engage with our employees in conversations that are so deeply human, how we engage in conversations that talk about not only them at work, but talk about them in their family context, in their community context. These are the things that require different capabilities of managers. And I think we are a little bit afraid of what that might mean, and a little bit afraid that we will lose some controlled variables in that process. So these will be probably the reasons why we stick to those old methods.

Jo Taylor 

What I love about what you’re saying is that when you go back to what you said at the beginning about how we can throw away those antiquated models and look at fulfilment, you’re actually talking about potential being someone able to bring their whole self. So you’re looking at the whole human, rather than looking at sets of skills, or criteria, or attributes that define one person’s potential as a future leader, versus someone who’s a specialist, to someone that’s talented.

So when you think about using that new way of measuring potential, when you’ve assessed it, or you’ve really thought about it and identified it, what do you do with those people that perhaps have the highest potential? And is that the right terminology at all to even use?

Ewa Priestley 

Yeah, good point. Is that even the right word? That’s probably the question. What I have experimented with in the last 18 months is to look at measuring natural talents.

And there is a really, really cool startup in Canada called Plum: they develop the product based on this premise that actually, when you’re either hiring or developing people in the organisation, you shouldn’t be really constraining yourself to the thinking about the hard skills they have – to the functional skills they have – to the expertise, experience they bring; that you should actually really inject into the decision making about who you hire, who you develop, and for what, by combining what natural talents these individuals have, using fundamental principles of Ericksonian psychology, and what roles in the organisation will mostly capitalise on these natural talents that people have. What it does, it just almost takes the what we call technical skills out of the equation, because it believes that if you match the job with regards to the natural talents to the person who already has these natural talents, everything else is trainable. Everything else is coachable.

And I think that now when we are faced with the current economy, challenges, market labour conditions, shortages of talent, pressures on higher velocity of upskilling of people in your organizations, that’s a very interesting idea to almost unlock more gateway/entry level jobs, so that people are not hired for what they know, but they are hired for what they are naturally good at, and then they can learn to know whatever they need to know with the support of the organisation. And I think that this is an interesting way of injecting a slightly different way of thinking about potential. It will require, of course, a complete reinvention of what learning and development, talent development functions will have to do. And also a huge shift in talent acquisition, right, because you’re losing, again, that safety blanket; that you are hiring someone who already has some capabilities that are required to do the job, you’re trusting that you will train for these capabilities, but they will have the natural attributes that will make them successful in whatever role they’re going to take in your organisation. It’s a big, bold… big bold bet that companies will have to take. And I really like what Plum are doing. And I like how some of the organisations they work with are already experimenting with this approach.

Jo Taylor 

I really like that because I always thought, in my career, that I’ve always hired for attitude. And if you say attitude is part of potential, whether that’s curiosity, whether that’s drive, I know that I can teach them the skills that they need to be a great talent management professional. But if they’ve got the right attitude, then I will always take much more of a risk. And that’s for me the difference, isn’t it, between, recruiting for performance and driving high performance? And that kind of off-the-cliff thought around, “actually does that person have the potential? I’m going to take more of a punt”, and if it doesn’t work out, it’s much more sort of growth mindset, isn’t it, in terms of thinking than fixed mindset, which is I “I need someone that’s got leadership skills, infrastructure, data analytics, all of that”, actually, it’s more about how they fit in the ecosystem, and the culture of an organisation, which sounds really exciting. I love that.

Ewa Priestley 

And what I would add, Jo, is that I think we all notice really tectonic shifts that are happening in the world with regards to equity. How employees perceive their rights. And this is way beyond the sort of traditional way of thinking about diversity and inclusion. I believe that by shifting talent models into these models that measure more natural aptitudes, and then the skills are trained, you sort of give more people equal chances, because there are so many communities that have no access to the correct level of education required to join some of these more, sought after positions and sought after companies is that you’re kind of almost disempowering these individuals from having a go from the very beginning. And I think that with these ongoing trends on diversity, equity and inclusion and giving everybody a fair chance, and a fair deal – again, shifting talent models into something that is more innate to you, and then harnessing that and growing it within the company and then offering upskilling programmes, then that is a much more equitable world that I would love to see in the next 10 to 20 years. And I read something recently, I think Microsoft is making a pledge of rehiring its own people, right? And again, I think that’s around the equity, because I think what I saw, at least in the technology sector in the last three years was that no one was really thinking about the people in the company. Everybody was obsessing about hiring new people, and every time there was a shortage of particular skills, either in the space of machine learning, data science, AI, whatever, the idea was always: we’re going to bring the experts. But what about people who can become these experts internally? I think companies haven’t done the best job in that. So I’m really encouraged to hear things like what Microsoft is saying: let’s pay attention to what we already have, it’s the capital we already can leverage, and it’s also the right thing to do – back to that equity point I just made.

Jo Taylor 

It’s a shift to “grow your own”. And that must have an effect on, you know, the phenomenons that we’re seeing around, you know, the Great Resignation or quiet quitting. People are going to need to shift because there is a skills shortage in certain industries. So if you don’t invest in growing your own and starting to think about what that means, you don’t create that fairness that you talk about, but also you disempower – as you also said – a workforce that’s always thinking, “Well, I’m not good enough, because actually, there’s newness outside”, it’s like that shiny penny that you go after, rather than actually thinking “I’ve got loads of different skills and attributes in my company, why am I spending money – effectively – hiring externally, when I could be growing and nurturing?”

Ewa Priestley 

And even more so, there are some organisations out there that very consciously communicate to their employees that every next hire needs to be a certain percentage better performer than someone who’s already in the role. How does that make people feel? They know that the company is actually consciously hiring people that are supposed to push the performance forward, because they are supposed to be even better at doing the role than someone who’s already in the role. And I think I understand the idea behind it that we just continuously push performance forward. But I think that the current reality of what people are willing to accept and what they are no more willing to accept in the context of the work they perform, I think that that’s not going to work anymore.

Quiet quitting is an interesting concept. You mentioned it, because I think there is an interesting debate about it that I’m starting to hear, which is: is quiet quitting actually a bad thing, or is quiet quitting a reminder that people will have boundaries, that people will not sacrifice everything they have for the benefit of the company if they don’t receive anything back? And maybe quiet quitting is a moment of reflection for organisations and for leaders to think about. Maybe it’s not actually healthy for everybody to be always chasing the next big thing. Maybe some people are choosing to create an environment for themselves. The job is the job and this is what I do. It’s not people who underperform, it’s just people who don’t go above and beyond, visibly, right? In terms of what we consider above and beyond. And maybe it’s not a bad thing. Maybe it is also a good reminder for all of us that we can get a little bit lost in this race for the next big shiny thing like you said.

Jo Taylor 

I agree with you. I don’t see it as a negative, I think it’s a kind of recalibration, I think it’s a real moment in time in the way people want to work. COVID has absolutely exacerbated it, hybrid has exacerbated it, but ultimately it’s making businesses wake up, which they haven’t done for a very long time. So I actually think it’s really exciting, and it’s giving a much clearer mandate for professionals like us to be more innovative than we perhaps could have been 10 or 15 years ago. So I’m always one of the optimists and always think “the best is yet to come”, rather than saying, “Ok, well, it was brilliant”. An old boss said to me once: “if you’re driving a car, and all you’re doing is looking in the rear view mirror, you’re going to crash”. And it really feels relevant at the moment in terms of the world of work.

So if people wanted to find out more about you, and your thoughts and your feelings, where would they find you and get in contact with you?

Ewa Priestley 

I am not a very prolific podcaster or an author. I tend to stay a little bit anonymous, I keep my controversial thoughts largely to small rooms, small discussions. So I hope that by doing this podcast, I’m not going to get exposed to some viral trolling. Because I do have maybe sometimes quite radical views on some of the profession that I also represent, right? But if people wanted to get in touch with me, they can always find me on LinkedIn.

And I am very happy to enter a debate about all sorts of things related to talent development, learning leadership, I think that we are in a beautiful moment in time with regards to redefining what it may mean for the future. Because even when you read everything that is being written and researched on the future of work, the hybrid working models, that big research that Microsoft just released a week ago about productivity paranoia, and things like that, I think that it’s just a phenomenal, phenomenal chance for all of us who work in talent space to get together to very, very critically evaluate what we’ve been doing to date, and not be afraid to try and break things in a sort of controlled, small, contained environment.

But actually give it a go and try completely different new things. And try to convince people we work with, from the business leadership, that it does take courage but it makes sense to do it. And I think that’s probably going to be the hardest thing for people like you, me and everybody else who does the job we do.

First of all, convince yourself that taking a risk is ok.

And second of all, convince your leaders, your CEOs, that it’s actually worth pursuing something that no one else has done before. And we don’t quite frankly, know where we’re going to land.

But it’s ok, right? So I think I agree with you. I think that the moment is actually super exciting.

Jo Taylor 

So the final two questions I wanted to ask you, and we’re going to be asking everybody on this new podcast that we’re doing – the first question is: what is the proudest moment of your career?

Ewa Priestley 

I had a lot of mess ups and failures in my career. And when you asked me this question, somehow I naturally go to those, rather than my proudest moments. But let me try this. I think my proudest moment was when I truly embraced who I was meant to be at work.

For a long, long time, probably for the first 10 to 12 years of my professional career, I tried to fit in, or I tried to be what I thought was the expectation of me. And that involved both how I was meant to be as a professional, but also how I was meant to be as a leader, how I was meant to be as a woman, how I was meant to be as an immigrant in the UK, because I came from another country. And I deprived myself of truly owning who I was.

And I had a really great manager once who helped me understand that if I really lived through my superpower, and what I’m meant to be and what I’m meant to do, I will be at my absolute best. And the moment I realised that that was true and I started using that superpower more and more, which always gave me a huge amount of anxiety when I was doing it, but then when I saw the impact that I was creating, on the people that were receiving that and on the organisations that those people were working for, ultimately, I realised that that was the best gift I ever received from that manager to really encourage and point me out to that purpose that I am here to serve. And this is, I guess, my proudest moment. The moment I embraced it, and I was not afraid anymore to be that? That’s when I became most powerful and most successful.

Jo Taylor 

I love that. Thank you so much for sharing. And the final question is: what’s your favourite podcast or book to recommend to anyone listening to this podcast, on looking to unlock their potential?

Ewa Priestley 

This is going to be a bit of a weird choice, Jo. But I really would love everybody: employees, managers, leaders to read Atlas of the Heart by Brené Brown. And this is not about potential models, career development. But I think it is about something that we forget, in organisations, all the time. And I think the companies that will be brave enough to embrace human emotions, with their whole messiness and beauty, that managers who will be trained to understand why people do what they do, what drives certain behaviours, how to disarm certain dysfunction that can happen because of emotions – these will be the companies that will win in that next iteration.

So Atlas of the Heart, for me, is a really great reminder of what distinguishes us from the technology and the machines that we are now using to make better decisions about humans. But I think that there are some really beautiful, sacred things about us that we should not forget. And I think in this pursuit of automation and scaling that everybody talks about, we should not forget that each single one of us is a beautiful computer in its own right, with some really beautiful emotions inside. And we should really embrace them, cherish them, and at least allow them to happen and not be afraid when it happens in the workplace.

Jo Taylor 

What a wonderful way to end this podcast. Thank you so much. And thank you for talking from the heart and being brave and sharing with your thoughts and feelings. It’s been truly inspiring. I wish you success going forward and challenging yourself. And in a way, as we say, always in our values: kind people are our kind of people, and you are certainly one in a million. Thank you so much.

Ewa Priestley 

Thank you, Jo. It was my pleasure. I hope it’s going to be helpful, valuable or at least thought provoking for those of your customers and partners who will be listening to this podcast in the future. Thank you Jo for having me.

Jo Taylor

Thanks for listening to the Potential for What Podcast. If you’re hearing this message, you’ve listened to our new episode all the way to the end. And for that I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

We hope you enjoyed this episode and if you did, please leave us a review on Apple Podcasts and Spotify. Please share this episode with others who may be interested in this topic.

As always, you can head over to to check out all the links and resources in the show notes and to sign up to our email list.