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Why you shouldn’t just recruit for potential.

12th November 2017

I hear a lot about businesses recruiting for potential – that is recruiting for what someone will be able to do in the future (if they are not skilled or experienced now).  Based on the old saying “you can teach knowledge and skills but you can’t teach attitude”.

I get it and to a certain degree I think it is true.  But if it were only that simple.

My first challenge is ‘what is potential’?  I can guarantee if you get your management team (your recruiting managers) together and ask them, they will have some difference in views and opinions.

Potential, in my opinion, is two things – and you have to have both.   An ability (and so aptitude) to learn the required knowledge and acquire the required skills. And then the ambition (desire) to do it.   And again, you need both to tick the potential box.

All the desire and ambition in the world doesn’t mean you will be good at something. No matter how much I want to be a rock star and how hard I work at it, it’s never going to happen.  My voice would quite easily score ‘it’s 4 No’s’ from Mr Cowell’s panel!  Similarly, I could be the best blog writer in the world but if I have no desire to do it, then it simply wont happen.

My second challenge is even if your recruitment process is robust and has taken care of these two points, how do you really test for it?

After 25 years working in HR I have conducted hundreds of interviews.  It is rare to be sat opposite someone, in an environment where they are there to sell themself, who will readily say they are not ambitious – that they don’t have the desire to really work hard for the opportunity you are offering them.  It is also unusual for someone to claim they would not have the ability to do the job you are offering them, even with some great training.  They wouldn’t be at the interview if they didn’t think they could do it.

So, you have a tricky job!

Finding a way of testing someone’s ability to do something in the future, (that they haven’t done before), isn’t foolproof.  But relying on your standard interview questions and hoping they will give you a ‘feel for it’ is probably not the best approach.  It always surprises me how many graduate interviews still follow the typical recruitment process, despite the fact you can only test for potential.

Testing someone’s ambition is again different.  “Where do you want to be in x years time?’, ‘How ambitious would you say you are?, and so on – these won’t cut it.  After all, what is ambition?  For me, it will be different to you, and to someone else.  We need to really get to understand what this is for each candidate – does it match the opportunity?

So, is recruiting for potential wrong? No. After all, none of us would have careers if someone hadn’t taken a chance on us somewhere along the line.   But it is different and it needs a different type of recruitment process to give you a better chance of really finding the potential you are looking for.

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