Companies Value Potential in Employees — Not in Candidates

Talent management aims to identify and cultivate high-potential performers. Recruiting, however, deprioritizes potential. Why is that?

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Feb 28, 2023

There’s so much inequity in talent development. The problem is that organizations tend to focus almost all of their development efforts on people they identify as having high potential. That’s maybe 10% of the workforce, which leaves behind many people and opportunities for development.

But if you really want to improve performance, you have to have equity when it comes to giving people opportunities for career growth.

At the same time, there’s a lack of transparency when it comes to development opportunities — yet it’s important for organizations to give all their employees access to grow. Companies have got to stop helping only the few and start developing the many, especially because this manifests in negative ways when it comes to diversity and inclusion. So often, it’s the same white dudes at the table developing people who are like them. For instance I remember when I worked at an organization with 11 other men on the executive team. They all got coaches to help them develop, but I had to really beg for one.

At the same time, opportunities may be there, but, again, companies often aren’t doing enough to create transparency around them. People aren’t given full visibility into the many things they can be doing to develop. And that’s also partly because companies have data on their people but don’t know what to do with it. They aren’t necessarily using that data to help people see ways to develop themselves. That’s why you end up with so many generic trainings that aren’t necessarily the best ways for people to advance. Companies aren’t using performance and development data to bring granularity to development mostly because the HR systems hinder them in bringing data and development together to bring actual outcomes — upskilling that connects to their job, role, and goals within the organization.

HR has 1,001 jobs and just as many systems. HR tech needs to enable progress, not just data. This enablement needs to connect to upskilling for the masses, and then we will truly have a chance of solving the skills gap.

Take leadership training. A lot of it doesn’t stick because it’s so generic and people aren’t sure how to then apply it in their unique roles. It ends up being so fluffy because it is based on thematic data and not actual data sets of where people need to develop. It’s important to meet them where they are.

Not Just a Talent Acquisition Problem

All this isn’t just a talent management problem. It’s also a talent acquisition problem. Most hiring managers aren’t adept at interviewing and assessing candidates, and with the rise of AI and ChatGPT, we need to be careful that we are enabling people with technology, not replacing the skill sets they actually need to learn to perform their job well and develop their core people skills.

In essence, they weren’t trained to hire the right candidates. And sure enough, many companies will admit that their hiring practices are broken. Damn right they are! But it all stems from the fact that training practices are broken, that hiring managers weren’t taught the competencies to interview people correctly in the first place.

And part of that entails looking for potential in people. But it’s no secret that it’s easier to identify criteria that are not based on potential — things like experience, education, technical skills. Which also raises an irony that within a company, we tend to focus development on high potentials, but when hiring, we tend to discard potential while assessing candidates.

Except potential is important during hiring. At my company, my two best salespeople had never sold anything their entire lives, and yet they’ve been exceeding sales goals. Prior to them, I had hired seasons sales professionals, and guess what? They did not work out.  It’s because what matters most in this role isn’t sales experience so much as critical thinking skills, good listening skills, and other soft skills.

To gauge for such soft skills, when hiring I asked very situational questions like, “Talk to me about your biggest success. Talk me through it all from beginning to end. What did you do? What did you learn?” I’ll also say, “Tell me what your biggest disaster was. What did you mess up on, and what did you learn? What did you try to fix?”

Ultimately, employers should be assessing better for potential during the hiring process — and then recognizing that everyone in the organization has potential to grow. When we enable, we provide potential for all people to learn.

This article has been adapted from an interview with ERE editor Vadim Liberman.

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