Hiring for potential: what it means and how to do it

By Caroline Roberson on June 9, 2022

“Hiring for potential” is a trend that emerged from concerns about the future of work, where the skills employees will need evolve so quickly that hiring based on experience and existing job skills will no longer be enough. In this future workplace, companies will need to hire people with the ‘potential’ to adapt to the changing demands of the role, the company, and the marketplace. Talent acquisition professionals also talk about hiring for potential when the skills gap spurs them to look beyond skills and experience to fill open roles.

But what does hiring for potential really mean, and more importantly, how do you build a hiring strategy around it?

Hiring for potential means hiring candidates based on what you think they can do, rather than what they have already done. It looks different for every open role because the demands of every job are different. In one position, the potential to lead and innovate may be critical, whereas, for another, the potential to collaborate, problem-solve, and drive change are key.

Hiring for potential opens the search process to a more diverse candidate pool and allows you to vet candidates in a more organic way. Where job requirements might list 10+ years of experience, hiring for potential will allow you to consider candidates with varying degrees of experience but who demonstrate the soft skills and personality you need for that role.

The trick is figuring out what measures indicate the potential to perform in each position. Here’s how to do it.

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Define what kind of potential you are looking for. With an uncertain and evolving future, potential is best defined by core traits and behaviors rather than specific skills. To find the right combination, identify high performers in the roles you are hiring for to use as a model for future hires. Have top performers complete an assessment that measures their traits, personalities, and skills. You can then compare these reports to find common themes. While each candidate’s profile will be unique, certain traits will consistently emerge, suggesting they are predictive of success. For example, your best developers may have varying degrees of leadership skills, but they might all have advanced problem-solving skills, logical reasoning, and spatial awareness.

Create a profile for future hires. Work with your assessment company or an organizational psychologist to use assessment data to build an ideal candidate profile for each role based on the common traits among your high performers. Use that profile to vet future hires. The applicants whose employment screening most closely align with your best current performers will have the greatest potential to excel in the role.

Of course, a hiring decision shouldn’t be made on one set of data or measures. You’ll still want to consider a candidate’s experience, resume, and performance in interviews or on tests. But adding ‘future potential’ to the list of considerations and creating profiles that help you measure that potential will make your vetting process more robust, ensuring you aren’t just hiring people for what they’ve done, but what they have the potential to do.

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