5 tips for assessing employee potential

SPONSORED: Early brilliance isn't a great predictor of future success. How do you find the stars of tomorrow when today they look like everyone else?

Last Updated: 10 Jun 2016

In an ideal world, your pipeline would be brimming with future high fliers, who will one day push your organisation to new heights. Unfortunately, life’s rarely that kind. Spotting a diamond in the rough is an essential skill therefore if you want your teams to sparkle.

The solution might seem obvious – just take the people who are performing well now. Except high performers don’t necessarily have high potential, according to research compiled by HR body Corporate Research Forum (CRF). Being a brilliant coder doesn’t mean you’ll do a good job as CEO of Google.

Here are five tips to help you find and develop your future stars.

1 - Know what you’re looking for

Finding high potential individuals sounds great, but what does that actually mean? CRF report authors Gillian Pillans and Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic (who’s also an MT columnist) offer this broad definition: ‘the capacity to reach and be effective in senior leadership positions, and to grow and broaden their career at an accelerated pace, with sustained growth over a longer time frame (at least three to five years).’

It’s important however to narrow it down to fit your own business’s needs. ‘A key question to answer in designing potential assessment is "potential for what, in this organisation"?’

2 - Get smart

In a properly functioning organisation, more senior positions involve a greater degree of complexity. It’s unsurprising therefore to find intellect is ‘the best single predictor of future career success’. However, Pillans and Chamorro-Premuzic are quick to point out that while intelligence is necessary it is not sufficient on its own. Indeed, there’s a point after which being smarter ceases to be that useful. ‘High flyers tend to be in the top 30% [for IQ], but there are no great advantages to being in the top 5% or 1%.’

3 - Soft skills count

Aside from being smart, senior people need emotional intelligence – personality type has a lot to do with success. As a rule, leaders need to be:

  • Conscientious - self-disciplined, hard working, organised and reliable.
  • Open to new experiences - curious and experimental, and particularly good at learning from those experiments (known as ‘learning agility’)
  • Extroverted - outgoing people have superior social skills (though ‘socialised introverts’, those who can successful train themselves to act like extroverts, can be just as strong in this area)
  • Resilient  - successful people usually have low neuroticism (people who tend to get stressed when making a sandwich are unlikely to last long at the helm of a bank).

The jury’s out on another key aspect of personality, agreeableness. ‘Nice’ people aren’t as likely to emerge as leaders, but are more likely to do well once they get there. ‘Leaders are more effective when they are altruistic, empathetic, and diplomatic, but having those qualities makes it harder to emerge as a leader. Instead, being more selfish, cold, and brash is more likely to propel people to leadership positions,’ say Pillans and Chamorro-Premuzic.

4 - Watch out for derailers

Assessing potential is much like cooking a soufflé. Having all the raw ingredients in place doesn’t guarantee your prospective high-flier will rise. Positive characteristics can quickly turn into ‘derailers’ if they are overused. ‘The strengths that make someone successful early in their career can become liabilities unless they learn different strengths in order to succeed later on,’ say Pillans and Chamorro-Premuzic. ‘Blind spots, which were perhaps overlooked when someone was delivering results, become a barrier to success later. And success can lead to arrogance.’

No positive trait is safe from its lurking downside. Diligence at a junior level could become micromanagement down the line, team players can become indecisive, innovative thinkers can become unrealistic and doers can become dictators.

Among other things, CRF recommends testing to exclude high potential people prone to derailment, helping them to understand what their potential weaknesses are so they can work on them and establishing appropriate governance around developing leaders ‘to ensure there is a balance between giving them autonomy and preventing them overreaching themselves or falling victim to hubris.’

5 - Get with the programme

Now you know what kind of person you’re looking for, you need to find them. Pillans and Chamorro-Premuzic’s advice includes involving senior management, using a data-driven assessment programme and developing a way to measure how successful it has been.

 ‘Assessing potential is not an exact science. However, by implementing a robust process, rooted in science and clearly connected to business strategy, organisations can increase the probability that their investments in high potentials will bear fruit.’

CR Forum is an event partner for MT's Britain's Most Admired Companies awards.

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