What is potential and how can you spot it?

Learn more about your people with new Thomas...The 6 traits of high potential future leaders...

Ahead of the launch of our new tool for identifying and developing leadership potential, the High Potential Trait Indicator (HPTI), we’re giving you a sneak peek into how to spot potential. Ian MacRae, author of HPTI, takes you through the three dimensions of potential in the first of his series of guest blogs.

Every organisation wants to hire motivated and talented staff with potential. But what is potential? And how can you spot and nurture it?

The definition of potential is not always clear in the workplace and the consequences of getting it wrong are costs in productivity, profit and possible derailment. Potential is the focus of countless books and seminars and is the secret ingredient that every organisation is looking for when hiring or promoting. It has many synonyms: blessed, exceptional, flair, genius, giftedness – but how can it best be defined, and most importantly identified and developed? Many will try to sell the idea of a single measure or single important characteristic of high potential, but it can be most clearly defined by three essential factors.

The three dimensions of potential

Silzer and Church's model (2009) clearly and succinctly identifies three dimensions that help to define potential in a given role.

Career dimensions

Career dimensions of potential are specific attributes that lead to success in a particular occupation or job. They tend to be specific skills that can be demonstrated at varying degrees throughout a career trajectory. Career dimensions can be learned and developed through experience – experience is a key part of career dimensions.

Career dimensions are important for hiring new employees, and are typically the first (and sometimes only) consideration during hiring. In fact, career dimensions are one of the most common measures employers use, hence why CVs ask for previous experience and credentials. Younger job seekers are often frustrated that entry level positions require years of experience. Experience, of course, is a good indicator of performance in that specific area, but isn’t always a good indicator of potential. Always ask the question: "What do you want this person to be able to do in the long term?" The key question about career dimensions is, "What do we need the employee to be able to do?" In other words, what skills, education and expertise are required for the job? Career dimensions can be acquired and developed, whereas this is less so for the other dimensions.

Growth dimensions

Growth dimensions of potential affect development and improvement and are relatively stable over time. They can be a combination of internal characteristics of the individual and situational factors. For example, a person who is very interested in a particular area may be more focused and learn more successfully, or an encouraging mentor can improve a person’s growth.

Growth potential can be partially identified ahead of time. For example, interests, propensity to learn, adaptability and ambition all boost growth potential when used appropriately. It is important to identify because the greatest gap between current performance and potential is bridged or inhibited by growth potential. In the same way a positive mentor can improve growth potential or improve a toxic situation, a damaging leader can hinder growth or exacerbate problematic issues.

Foundational dimensions

Foundational dimensions of potential are fundamental, stable characteristics that predict success across the board. They are consistent over time, so are the best measures in predicting both short and long term potential. Foundational dimensions are attributes that contribute to success in any career or job at any time. Intelligence is the prime example as it is generally and consistently useful. Conscientiousness, too, is part of the foundational dimension.

Situational factors will only have limited effects on foundational potential. Foundational dimensions are quite stable across the adult lifespan and can only be changed with serious psychological intervention.

These three dimensions can be used as a framework to customise the assessment of an individual’s potential and to define what high potential is in a given role. But asking and answering the question “potential to do what?” is the necessary first step.

The challenges of potential

There are three key challenges that organisations face in terms of potential:

  1. How do I identify people with high potential?
  2. How do I develop the potential of people?
  3. How do I keep people with high potential?

Finding people with potential

Every employer wants to find the candidate with the highest potential, but how? CVs and experience help you to understand the skills and expertise someone has already, but how can you predict their potential for future success? HPTI provides an objective tool with which to assess leadership potential. It measures the candidate against six traits which predict success in a leadership position, all of which fall under Silzer and Church’s 3 dimensions of potential. Keep an eye out for my next blog in this series, which will go into more detail about HPTI and each of the six traits.

Developing people with potential

Those with high potential to thrive in a leadership position will not automatically become CEO and achieve wild success. Potential means the capacity to succeed, but it also requires the skills, knowledge and hard work to get there. Development is the most important part of the process of nurturing a potential or existing leader. HPTI helps leaders and aspiring leaders, in conjunction with their employer, to pinpoint and build upon existing strengths as well as identify and work upon areas for improvement. It helps to inform development plans and succession plans and build self-awareness in current or aspiring leaders.

Keeping people with potential

Many people with high potential desire and actively seek out development opportunities. Investing in the development plans of your leaders and your future stars will in turn help to keep them in your organisation. HPTI supports you in identifying your high potential leaders, as well as those whose potential might lead them in other directions at work. The HPTI helps tailor their learning to play to their strengths and addresses where they can improve, keeping them engaged and challenged. Identifying there are other types of potential beyond leadership also helps to retain those outside of the ‘high potential leadership’, because it recognises that there is talent and potential across the organisation, not just the five or ten percent seen as rising stars.

The most effective strategies to identify, develop, and retain high potential employees are based on evidence, effective tools and proven results; using HPTI to collect data with your people will put you in the best position when it comes to making decisions around your leaders and future leaders.

Our leadership potential series, in conjunction with the launch of the brand new HPTI, will continue next month, when Ian will take you through the six traits of leadership potential that the HPTI measures and how the tool can help you to address some of your key business challenges.