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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.

For example, provide sales data and ask for top three ‘findings’ for the sales strategy team, select product losing market share to competitors and ask what they would do if they were responsible for that product.

3) Discover information: For abilities that require the candidate find answers such as discovering user needs, investigating problems, researching journalistic articles; Give the candidate an ‘unsolvable’ problem that requires more information. Measure the results by evaluating if the candidate seeks answers first, and if so, what answers they seek.

For example, request a design for a new product without enough information about the purpose and/or market. Invite the candidate to ask questions. Ask a question that the candidate would not have the answer to and ask the candidate how they would get the answer.

4) Communicate: For abilities that require the strong communication such as managing teams, selling products, satisfying customers; Give the candidate a message and audience and ask them to formulate the message approach and content. Measure the results by evaluating if the candidate effectively conveys the message to the needs of the organization.

For example, the organization has promised a major customer a feature but due to a series of events, the organization can’t deliver it for another three months - what do you say? A late-stage prospect tells you they are no longer interested in purchasing a product - what do you do? Several complaints about not working well in a team has been filed against one of your employees – how do you handle it?

For more general evaluation of trainability, ask candidates to tell you about a time where they struggled to learn something or accomplish a task that they had not done before. What happened? Measure for the complexity of the challenge, what they did to resolve it, and if they persevered.

Detect and measuring desire

Desire is the interest of the candidate to pursue a new skill or ability. Even if they are trainable to do so, it doesn’t mean the candidate will want to pursue that path. Desire is tricky to measure as candidates may not know if they have the desire, so how can they accurately tell you? There are a few techniques that help. For example:

1) What drives you: Rather than ask if a candidate wants to do exactly what you want them to learn, instead ask more general questions about what drives or interests them professionally. Measure the results by evaluating alignment between their interests and your desired potential.

For example: Fast forward five years from now. You are evaluating your past professional self – what do you celebrate as the most impactful accomplishments? What makes you excited to go to work in the morning? What makes you hate going to work? You get a dream assignment at work – what is it? Why is it a dream assignment?

2) Would you rather: Give the candidate a series of two or more options for their future and ask what they would rather do/be and why. Make sure the options are devoid of judgement (i.e. the candidate can’t tell which is the “right” answer). Measure alignment to desired potential.

For example: Would you rather be the best in your field or running the team of the best in the field? Would you rather have all the answers or know where to find the answers? What gets you more excited, a happy customer, or a new customer?

3) Things to avoid: Rather than asking what a candidate wants to do, ask the reverse – what the candidate wants to avoid. Use balanced questions (positive and negative) to ease the candidate into the negative response. Measure how misaligned your needs are to what the candidate does not want. Note: no/negative points for answers that aren’t answered – “I want to avoid making my boss unhappy”.

For example: What are three tasks you are looking forward to in this position and what are three tasks that you’d rather not do or do too often? What are the three things that will make you excited to stay at the organization and what are three things that would drive you away? What do you love most about your job and what would you happily never do again?

Measuring potential is not an exact science. But, by defining and prioritizing the potential you want, and detecting and measuring both the trainability and the desire for those capabilities, you will have a lot more actionable insight than the vague and valueless "I'll know it when I see it".

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