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How to measure for future potential when hiring


Future potential.


How often have you been asked to search for it and prize it in future employees? How often has it made it into mantras and best practices of talent organizations? How often is it seen as some key ingredient to the future dominance of a team, department, or organization?


And yet, how often has it crossed the boundary from a lofty construct defined only by a feeling (i.e. “I’ll know it when I see it”) to a detectible, measurable attribute of candidates?


Future potential can be hugely valuable to an organization. It can enable organizations to hire cheaper, less experienced talent as an investment in future strength. It can expand the possibilities of what the team and organization can accomplish over time.


And it can increase flexibility and adaptability mitigating the risk of unforeseen future obstacles.


But to truly achieve the value of future potential, you must be able to define, detect, and measure it.


Flavors of potential


Before diving into defining potential, it helps to think of potential in two categories. Namely, to follow a defined career path and to feed organization evolution.


Defined career path potential is the ability for a candidate to progress down a purposefully designed path of steps and promotions. They could be progression within the same department from entry through senior level positions, they can include crossing into management positions, and/or they can be progressions that cross disciplines and teams.


For example: associate sales rep -> sales rep -> executive sales rep


For example: engineer I -> engineer II -> engineer team lead -> director engineering


For example: customer service rep -> senior services rep -> pre-sales consultant


Independent of the path, these defined career paths have one or more of the following attributes:

  • Defined set of skills and abilities required to move from one position to the next

  • Career progression activities (such as employee evaluations) that periodically track progress toward the next step

  • Examples of individuals who have progressed through the path

Organization evolution is the changes in the organization and the teams within it over time due to strategy or external pressures. It is all the ways the job itself will change over time to remain relevant and valuable to the organization.


For example, a pandemic forces organizations to adopt virtual practices requiring greater skills in virtual communication, collaboration, technology, and execution.


For example, a strategy moves the organization to an ‘on demand’ model requiring a fundamental shift in content generation, technology for content distribution, and marketing.


Unlike defined career paths, these demands are a lot less predictable. However, there are often hints that can help define the potential:

  • Trends in the industry or organization

  • Governing strategies or strategic shifts

  • Gaps in organization/team abilities that leave the organization vulnerable to sudden shifts

With these two flavors of potential in mind…


Define the potential


To identify potential, you must first answer the question – potential for what? In other words, what is it that you want the candidate to achieve in the future for which they require potential?


Here are a few questions to help guide answering that question:


For defined career path:


1) What are the various career paths for this position? (Note: “none” is a perfectly valid answer.)


2) For each step of the career progression, what are the key skills and abilities to successfully progress?


3) Which career paths are most valuable for the organization?


Valuable career paths are those that cultivate talent not easily or affordably found. From a DEI perspective, this can also be used to cultivate missing demographics into talent pools.


For example: an organization has a lot of trouble finding skilled labor to operate specific machinery so it relies on cultivating that talent from within.


For example: while the organization has no problems hiring women and people of color into entry-level engineering roles, there are few qualified to join the management ranks. Therefore, the majority of the diversity in management is currently through promoting talent from within.


Honesty is key for the success of this exercise. If there is no career path or if cultivating talent is not a strength or a funded initiative in the near future, hiring for career path progression potential is not only a waste, it can be detrimental. Candidates with strong potential and no path will likely grow restless and seek opportunities elsewhere.


For organization evolution:


1) What will the team/organization have to do differently next year and beyond to meet funded strategic initiatives?


2) What may the team/organization be forced to do differently based on industry, economic, or other major trends?


3) Where does the team/organization have weaknesses that leave them vulnerable if something goes wrong?


Like any ‘predict the future’ analysis, these questions are not simple and have no right answer. However, there is ‘directionally accurate’ – or answers that provide focus to measuring potential for what the organization believes is important. For the best results, don’t do this alone. Rather, work with hiring managers, executives, company strategists, etc.


For example: the HR team is scheduled to purchase a new HRIS by the end of next year. This will be the first major purchase in over five years, and the team is not currently comfortable with new technology. Therefore, HR will likely have to evolve to include technology evaluation, implementation, and adoption over the next two years.


For example: Thanks to the pandemic, the industry is heavily shifting away from physical stores to online and blended retail models. The traditional brick-and-mortar organization now has a five-year plan to shift to a blended model to balance in-person experience with online ease. As a result, marketing must evolve from a product and in-store focus to an experience-based focus dominated by social media and campaigns embedded in entertainment media.


Once you have the ‘potential for what’, prioritize the list. Then you are ready for the next step:


Detect and measure potential


With the list of desired potential (potential for what), you now must answer the question – how much of each potential does the candidate have?


Keep in mind, measuring for ‘potential’ is not the same thing as measuring an existing skill or ability. For potential, the focus is on trainability and desire.


Detecting and measuring trainability


Trainability is the ability for the candidate to learn the new skill/ability. There are attributes that could contribute to the trainability of a candidate including ability to learn, and the innate ability in general skills that are the building blocks for the potential. Here are a few examples:


1) Follow Instructions: For abilities that follow a specific process such as mastering processes, operating machinery/devices, enforcing procedures, etc; Give the candidate a challenge with specific guidelines which could include steps, timeline, rules. Measure the results by evaluating what the candidate produces.


For example, assembling parts by following directions or evaluating a document using guidelines.


2) Solve problems: For abilities that require the candidate to solve challenges such as designing, analyzing data, and building strategy; Give the candidate an open problem to solve or request what steps the candidate would take to solve the problem. Measure the results by evaluating the candidate’s solution.

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