As a leader, we have to make hard choices about where to invest our time. It’s easy to say we should continually invest time into coaching and developing everyone on our team, and that’s definitely true—to a point. However, when we have a team member who lacks a particular skill, and that skill is critical for the person to grow his or her contribution to the organization, we have to make a decision about whether to invest the effort into developing that person or not.

To be clear, I’m not speaking about a generally poor performer, where it’s pretty obvious that the person needs to be encouraged to “flourish elsewhere”, rather I’m talking about someone who possesses a number of strengths, but may lack a particular skill necessary for their desired career direction.

For example, let’s say you have a good technical person, but she is lacking what has been described as “executive presence” when communicating to senior leaders. She has indicated a desire to move into a leadership role and wants your help in making that happen. You believe she is good with technical details, but she’s struggled with putting technical “mumbo jumbo” into terms that are relevant to executives and therefore has not gained your (or others’) confidence that she can think like a “business” leader. You know there is more to the issue than just sending her to a presentation skills course and that to develop her abilities will require significant hours of coaching, practice, review and feedback—mainly from you.

To help determine if this person is worth your time, here’s a list of criteria I would use to evaluate whether you should “fish” or “cut bait”:

  1. Consider and communicate the consequences. In the example above, if the executive presence or perspective is not developed, this person will likely not be promoted into the leadership role. Does she understand this and how does she feel about it? Find out what her true motivations are for wanting the leadership role. How do you feel about her in a potential leadership position? Is the organization willing to risk losing an otherwise highly capable technical talent? Are there other options for her career growth? Do you have other options in terms of talent that is ready to fill this leadership role?
  2. Do you and the individual believe the need or gap is something that can be developed? Do both parties believe this skill (in this case, executive presence) is something that the person can develop or achieve? Coming to an answer here is tricky, because you each may come to a different conclusion. As a leader, you also have to be willing to suspend judgment and challenge your own assumptions or mindset about the person’s growth capabilities.
  3. Find out if the person has the desire and motivation to develop the needed skill or behavior. This may be the most important element. If you’ve sufficiently clarified the need, determined the person can do it, and have laid out what it will take to get there, then it often comes down to a matter of willingness to pay the price. Make clear exactly what your expectations are and the estimated effort or length of the journey, along with ways to gauge progress or status. Then, confirm the person’s willingness to go for it. Listen to not only what they say, but also how they say it, to confirm they really have the motivation or drive. If you sense underlying hesitation or perhaps confidence issues, then you’ll need to explore these potential roadblocks to success.
  4. Finally, reserve the right to change your mind after a sufficient amount of time. As with any employee situation, you have to continually come back to the original development goal and determine whether progress has been sufficient enough to keep going or if a course change is warranted. If you feel a course change is necessary (i.e. the person will not be able to sufficiently close the gap), then make that decision and move on.

Making decisions about where to invest your time with your team is not easy. However, in my experience, most leaders tend to fall at one of two ends of the spectrum – they either give up on an individual too quickly, or they wait too long for progress to be made and everyone gets frustrated. My advice is to keep an open mind on a person’s growth or change potential, but also be crystal clear on expectations and have a concrete plan to follow up and measure progress.