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Has your company got talent? How can you spot those with high potential?

Has your company got talent? How can you spot those with high potential? 

Leaders are expected to identify and nurture the next generation of talent, to spot those with high potential… but business leaders tell us that they are at a loss for how to do this.  They’re not sure how to make a judgement today about who is able to make a really big contribution to the business tomorrow.

We agree it’s difficult – and getting more so:

  • We want people with leadership experience, but flatter structures mean less opportunities to build experience
  • We want to attract the next generation of leaders, but we’re told that they have a different attitude towards work and career
  • We want a more diverse leadership, but often we don’t have a diverse pipeline to select from
  • We want a reliable, fair and consistent way of measuring potential, but we often can’t answer the question, ‘potential for what?’

So, it’s time to rethink our approach – it’s not good enough to keep using historic based competency models, focus on past performance and believe that we (and other leaders) ‘know talent when we see it’. 

The starting point has to be a better description of what potential means in our complex and changing environment.  It will vary by role and organisation, and part of it, of course, will continue to be in the ‘expert’ domain - the knowledge, skills and intellectual capacity elements.  But the other elements are just as important and can be summarised as the interplay between restlessness, adaptability, fit and impact. 

Restlessness: this is a driving force for many successful leaders.  It means that they’re not happy with how things are – they need them to be better.  They demand more – more from themselves, more from their teams and more from others.  This restlessness gets converted into action and results.  They may celebrate success, but they are never really satisfied – they always see an opportunity to improve.

Adaptability:  this is a curiosity and willingness to learn new things (often born from restlessness), to continually innovate, evolve and adapt.  This enables people to explore different perspectives of an issue, to develop solutions and to perform well in new or ambiguous situations.  It is part growth mind-set and part actions to support learning (such as reflection, exposure to new thinking, experimenting with new approaches). 

Fit (personal and organisational): this is finding a match between what the individual and the organisation want, need and value.  For the individual, this includes their career aspirations, their personal values and their wider goals (which could, for example preclude them from moving location).  For the organisation, it’s about the needs of the specific role as well as the organisational culture and values.  When these are matched the individual understands ‘how to get things done around here’, they know which rules to stick with and which can be challenged. 

Impact: this is the ability to manage yourself and your impact on others.  It comes from high levels of self-awareness and self-management, building on strengths and finding ways to manage weaknesses.  People with impact can consciously adapt their behaviour according to the needs of the situation, they build strong relationships and mobilise people around a common goal.  They also tend to have humility, an openness to others’ views and a willingness to listen. 

So, if restlessness, adaptability, fit and impact are important in your organisation, how can you collect evidence so you can assess people against them?  One challenge is that these are not fixed attributes – elements of them can be learned and developed or may naturally change over time.  Take restlessness for example -  an environment where this is valued and recognised will inspire it in others.  Adaptability has been shown to be higher in people with more varied work experiences; fit may change over time as someone reassesses their aspiration; and impact can also be developed.  It is therefore important that any measure of potential is recognised as a ‘moment in time’ view, not one that defines the person for years to come.

So, on with the measurement.  Most business leaders feel pretty comfortable collecting evidence about expertise, but collecting sound data on restlessness, adaptability, fit and impact is more difficult.  We need to get under the skin of the person, to see their thinking style in action, to observe their behaviour; we want to understand how they make judgements and how they decide on the best course of action when there is no ‘right answer’.  We cannot do this with one simple measure.  We need to collect data from a range of sources, being clear on the evidence we are looking for and how it contributes to our overall view.  This goes beyond the standard interview as the main input – instead, it may include psychometrics, tailored complex scenarios, feedback from others, direct observation and in-depth interviews. 

Is it perfect?  No, not yet, and I have to confess, I feel a bit restless, wanting to find ways to continue improving what we do…

Comments on this Post

Bryan Stiles on 29th January 2017

I’d concur that senior line managers, often with no training in assessment, struggle in this space. Worse than a sole reliance on 'competencies', is evaluation based around ‘can this person act like me?’. Every organization should ask itself whether it has a structured approach, confidence in the quality of its pipeline or knows how to attract new talent. Your four elements resonate. The nod to ‘authenticity’ with the mentions of values (Fit), and self-awareness, openness and situational-sensing (Impact) seems ever more important in view of some of the global macro developments of 2016, and many organizations already acknowledge the value of ‘uncomfortable assignments’ as a development tool, so 'adaptability' is broadly recognized even if not so named.

Micaela Greenwood on 25th January 2017

Thanks Maggi, Marie and Steve for a helpful framework for thinking about the tricky concept of 'potential' and how to measure it...

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