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Why You Should Hire for Potential (Not Experience)

To really strengthen your recruitment, you need to focus on the potential of candidates, rather than simply direct experience. Looking at experience alone will reduce your available options, and could mean you miss out on someone great. Plus, an individual’s experience with another organization doesn’t necessarily guarantee future success with yours.

Recruiting is more challenging than ever. Our Talent Index research finds that 53% of people are planning to leave their job soon, and 78% of recruiters state that it is harder to find talent this year than last year. People rarely stay in a job for life, and as the world changes, completely new types of roles are being created. There are skills gaps everywhere.

Even if you’re just looking to improve quality of hire, focusing on potential could give you better results than just looking for required experience.

What it means to hire for potential

Typically, when you hire based on potential, the candidate has the soft skills needed for the role, with some additional skills and qualifications to back them up. However, they might not have much industry experience. These are often graduates, people who have recently completed an apprenticeship, or one of the many people who are changing industries.

While certain attributes are always attractive in potential employees, and culture fit is vital, it is important to consider their potential in the context of the sort of role they are applying for. Whether they have the potential to be successful depends on the skills needed to be good at that particular job, alongside the skills or qualities the candidate already possesses.

Why you should hire for potential

“I think we have to start thinking about propensity to learn, and start hiring for potential. We talk about this, but we never do it well. We need to hire for potential to learn. Because actually we can teach people the skills.” – Wagner Denuzzo

For some roles, it’s just about getting someone through the door as quickly as possible. If you can afford to take a more strategic approach, though, thinking about a candidate’s progression can make a big difference to the success of your team (and company).

Broaden the search

Seeking out candidates who have the potential to be top performers at your company, rather than those with lots of direct experience, opens up your talent pool. In a challenging recruitment landscape, why narrow your scope based on things that can, in many cases, be taught? Give yourself the best chance of finding a good talent match, with a broader pool of high-potential candidates.

“Through a skills-based approach, companies can boost the number and quality of applicants who apply to open positions and can assist workers to find more opportunities to advance internally, which can help employers improve retention.” – McKinsey

Improve diversity

We all know diverse teams tend to outperform those that aren’t diverse, and most companies have targets in place to ensure that their business reflects the community it operates in as closely as possible. Widening your pools by considering potential will undoubtedly have a positive impact on representation. 

Find more adaptable people

People lacking in experience but with high potential tend to be ready and willing to adapt, more quickly, to change. With less formal experience and ingrained habits, these individuals should be able to jump into new challenges with less prejudice, and with the right attitude. 

Boost innovation

Talented individuals with potential often bring fresh perspectives into a business, which can lead to possible new directions and smart approaches. Nurtured appropriately, your inexperienced hires could be the ones bringing the best ideas to the table. 

Get the best cultural fit

If you spend more time on assessing cultural fit than experience, you can find an ideal match... even if they have some learning to do. Cultural fit (or culture add) is important because it impacts an employee’s productivity and the quality of their work. By looking at potential, you can get a clearer picture of the candidate and whether or not they’re likely to succeed at your company, as part of the wider team.

Improve employee engagement

When you focus too heavily on how a candidate’s experience matches the role, you might overlook key performance indicators. A candidate who has extensive experience in marketing, but lacks a passion for the work and is not interested in your company, is more likely to get bored and leave. Also, people with less experience may be slightly easier to manage and coach, helping you increase their performance, productivity, and overall engagement.

Save time and money

People with lots of relevant experience on their CV may demand a higher salary, and may be entertaining multiple offers when applying to your company. Sticking to a rigid job description (and ignoring applicants who could be excellent at the job, with a bit of training) will make the hiring process take a lot longer.

Deliver long-term value

If your company wants to bring in people today who will be successful tomorrow, it’s worth considering the growth trajectory for your applicants. Not only does hiring for potential reveal untapped talent, it can lead to better retention and engagement (and, ultimately, productivity). As long as the business is fully behind the idea of ‘unlocking potential’ — embracing L&D, offering chances to upskill, giving people true career mobility — the benefits for the organization as well as the employee are huge. 

Investing in a new hire’s training, development and growth early on also means that the employee is closely aligned with the way your team does things. That can be useful!

Embracing the idea of continual improvement

In Japan, the principle of kaizen is key to business culture.

Kaizen describes a culture of continuous improvement. Every employee not only strives to make incremental professional improvements every day, but also takes responsibility for improving the company and its existing processes.

Every new hire must have the drive and determination to advance both the company and themselves. Growth is expected.

When you’re looking at candidates, it’s critical to evaluate not just where they are, but where they’re going and how fast they’re getting there. Trajectory (or growth) should be a key part of your assessment process.

Processes and technical skills can be learned; it’s far harder to teach skills like determination and self-motivation.

Promote for potential too

Most organizations promote people based on tenure and individual performance, but are ending up with people who are not actually great leaders.

When looking to fill a role, start by looking within, and ensure you understand the soft skills needed for the role, so you can find a good match. Identifying talent in your organization and developing those earmarked to improve is likely to be more cost effective than buying in highly-qualified recruits, and it should help with diversity, which in turn brings improved innovation

Invest in career paths

To ensure those with potential fulfil it, put strategies in place to give them the best chance possible and provide them with the tools they need to develop their professional skills. Have a clear development plan for them and offer ongoing mentoring.

Encourage potential amongst your team, not just external candidates. Build an internal talent pool or Talent Marketplace, and identify existing members of your team that have the potential to succeed at open roles. If you get this right, it can be incredibly effective.

“I do think in the future, it is going to be table stakes to have a talent intelligence platform as part of HR. The future is really putting them into a cauldron of skills matching and then picking the best and the brightest with a skills-based approach.” – Elin Thomasian

How to hire for potential

Assessing potential requires a slight shift in mindset. As we’ve covered, some candidates might not tick every box, so sometimes it can be necessary to lower your hiring bar.

This is not the same as lowering your hiring standards. It just means that you’re prepared to accept candidates with slightly less experience or qualifications, (these can be learned, remember), instead of holding out for the mythical purple squirrel!

Taking time to create a fair and objective hiring process, and looking beyond qualifications, is critical. The demands of the job should always guide your ultimate hiring decision. Ask:

  • What work will this person absolutely need to do? What are the critical deliverables?
  • Which skills will they need to use to meet the demands of the job?
  • What is at stake if you can’t find an experienced hire or train someone with potential? What operational or company benchmarks are dependent on this job being done?
  • How long will the new hire have to reach their full potential? Can we wait?
  • What does the new hire need to learn?

When it comes to narrowing down those all-important high-potential candidates, more broadly, consider these as part of your hiring process:

  • Consider how you write job adverts. Are you focused on the skills people actually need to do the job, or just looking at how a previous member of staff approached the role? 
  • Run group contests or hackathons: the winners could prove to be superb candidates for an available position without having to look at their background or experience. This could be a particularly effective option for when hiring web developers.
  • Use online assessment tools, especially for administrative roles. These can help recruiters find talented individuals who may have little to no experience or background.

It’s also important to look at an individual’s cultural fit, as it will determine the person’s potential to succeed within the framework of the company.

Learn more about building a skills-first organization.