Hiring On Potential: Is This The New Most Important Characteristic?

| July 7, 2014

Network CommunityThe phrase “Hire Slow Fire Fast” has become an accepted and standard operating procedures for businesses.  But in the process of hiring slow, what is the most important thing to look for to find the right candidate?  Many characteristics are necessary and basic – among them honesty, work ethic, and compatibility.  But after the basics, many analysts now believe that businesses are using outdated criteria in doing their evaluation.  Today, potential is most important attribute.  It is no longer what you know that counts, it’s what you can learn.

Claudio Fernandez-Araoz, the author of It’s Not the How or the What but the Who (Harvard Business Review Press, 2014), believes that “the ability to adapt to the ever changing business environment and grow into challenging new roles” is now the most important predictor of success at all levels.

Historically, every change in the economy rewards a new skill set; and so every change in the economy requires a new focus for identifying the best talent.  For centuries, talent spotting was based on physical attributes.  Jobs required raw physical exertion to build or to dig or to farm – and so “talent spotting” meant choosing the biggest, strongest people you could find.  It was fairly easy to decide who could or could not do the job.

When the economy changed to the industrial era, the emphasis came to be experience and past performance.  A person’s job would remain steady for decades, and so the focus was on having the necessary skill and intelligence needed to do it.  The best predictor of success was past experience in similar work.  As jobs became more complex, businesses started to test for competence, but still sought and rewarded experience.

Today, as the economy shifts again, so should (and will) talent-spotting.

Today, jobs do not remain static.  New technologies make both management and labor job performance much more complex.  In addition to being more complex, the skills needed to succeed are changing rapidly.  Today, the most important attribute is not what you have done (which is old history) but what you can learn to do – and not just can you learn the skill needed to do this job today, but will you be able to learn the skills that will be needed in a future that no one can yet predict.  In a word – can you adapt, can you grow, do you have potential?

A business could measure physical strength by asking a job candidate to demonstrate his ability to lift and carry.  It could measure intelligence by an IQ test.  It could evaluate competence by giving a skill test.  But how do you spot potential?

Fernandez-Araoz says that the first indicator of potential is the right kind of motivation, what he calls “a fierce commitment to excel in the pursuit of unselfish goals.”

Men and women with high potential have personal goals and ambitions; but they also aspire to big collective goals, show deep personal humility, and invest in getting better at everything they do.  Motivation is generally a constant (and an unconscious constant) in a person’s life.  Someone who is driven by purely selfish motives is unlikely to change, and is unlikely to have the potential needed in the new economy.

A second indicator of potential is curiosity, a desire for new experiences and knowledge, with an openness to learning and change. The trait that naturally follows curiosity is insight, the ability to gather and make sense of information that suggests new possibilities.  Curiosity plus insight plus determination will equal potential.

Once you have identified potential, the next step is to help that potential develop.  The best way to help people with potential grow is through “stretch assignments” – being given diverse, complex, challenging assignments that cause them to learn new skills, break old molds, and move up to the next level of confidence.

Today, businesses should not forget about intelligence, experience, performance, and specific competencies.  Even physical attributes seem to still be important (Malcolm Gladwell, the author of Blink, notes that CEOs tend to be about 3 inches taller than the average person).   But the new drivers of performance means that hiring for potential and developing those who have it should now be the top priority for hiring at every level of the business.

Category: Management