Hiring for Potential

By Davon Cook on April 11, 2016

        In my previous article, I discussed the way competency-based interviews help to assess a candidate’s ability and experience with specific skills. In this article, I invite you to consider a different ability of a prospective worker:  their potential to learn and grow. While you may be hiring someone for a specific task today, your company and your needs may change significantly over time.
        The June 2014 Harvard Business Review article 21st-Century Talent Spotting states, “So the question is not whether your company’s employees and leaders have the right skills; it’s whether they have the potential to learn new ones.  ” It defines potential as “the ability to adapt to and grow into increasingly complex roles and environments.”  Thus, when you hire in 2016 you are hiring for two things: ability in a task now and potential for doing future tasks.
        So how do you assess potential? As in the case of competency-based interviewing, ask for concrete examples that illustrate the potential to grow, using these indicators:

  • Motivation. Specifically, motivation to achieve unselfish goals. While ambition can be a positive motivator, make sure it’s humble ambition that can work toward collective goals, not just for personal glory.
  • Curiosity. People that are naturally curious are excited to learn and able to embrace stretch assignments that feed that curiosity. A curious person sees a new situation as an opportunity, not a roadblock.
  • Insight. The ability to make sense of information and experiences by looking beyond the status quo and applying them to new possibilities.
  • Engagement. The ability to connect with others to achieve and persuade, using a mix of emotion and logic. An engaged person has people skills that both give to and take from others’ strengths.
  • Determination. In defining “potential”, the tenacity to take on challenges and weather setbacks is critical to continued growth.

        Hiring for potential means being more open-minded to candidates that don’t arrive with the exact previous experience you’d prefer. If you learn to identify potential, you may also find that a worker’s ultimate value to your organization exceeds the requirements of the original job description. The tractor driver you’re hiring today may grow to be operations manager someday. Your scale clerk may learn to be your controller. Finally, don’t limit identifying potential only to new hires. Be willing to ask yourself the question, “Who in my current organization may have the potential to expand their role?”