Identifying High Potential

Group of High PotentialsHow do you spot potential?  What differentiates a high potential employee from one who has reached a career plateau?  Many organizations fall into the trap of relying on past performance as a measure of future potential.  Current and past performance may be an indicator of potential, but the two are not synonymous.   In fact, according to the Human Capital Institute, more than 70% of today’s top performers lack the critical attributes essential to success in future roles.   People who perform well in their current positions can fail miserably if they are promoted beyond their level of competence.

To more accurately identify potential, it is useful to assess an individual’s level of “learning agility”.  Learning agility is the speed at which people learn and adapt to change.  It is a term used to describe continuous learners who are open to exploring new ways of thinking and being.  Agile learners are students of life who are able to abandon entrenched patterns and ways of operating to try new things.

Research conducted by the Korn/Ferry Institute suggests that learning agility is a reliable measure of leadership potential.  This is because learning agile individuals are capable of absorbing and integrating information from their experience and then extrapolating what they have learned to apply the knowledge and skills in a completely new context.  According to Korn/Ferry, learning agility is comprised of the following five components:

  1. People Agility -People who treat others respectfully, communicate effectively with diverse individuals and respond positively and resiliently under pressure.
  2. Results Agility – People who accomplish results under challenging circumstances, inspire others to do the same and exhibit a presence that builds confidence in themselves and others.
  3. Mental Agility – People who take a fresh view of problems, are comfortable dealing with ambiguity and complexity, and are capable of explaining their thinking to others.
  4. Change Agility – People who are comfortable with change, demonstrate curiosity, experiment with new approaches and constantly strive to improve themselves.
  5. Self-Awareness – People who know themselves well and are aware of their own strengths and weaknesses.

The use of objective assessment data can be helpful to assess learning agility and identify potential.  Assessment support can include:

  • Cognitive ability measures – Measure aptitude and critical thinking skills essential for executive roles where problems are ambiguous and require the ability to quickly analyze data and draw inferences with limited information.
  • Competency-based assessments – Can include self-assessment, behavioural interviews by a trained assessor, or performance of simulated activities in an assessment centre.
  • Personality measures – Provide important insight into an individual’s overall fit within a role and the challenges he/she may face over the long term.

When assessing learning agility and determining potential, it is important to avoid single-manager evaluation bias.  This can be accomplished by conducting roundtable discussions with the broader leadership team where performance and potential of staff members are openly discussed and calibrated.  As part of this conversation, many organizations make use of the nine-box methodology to visually represent where individuals fall relative to performance and potential.

The key thing to remember is that we need to differentiate between performance and potential.  The more energy we invest in conducting a fulsome assessment of potential, the more likely it is that we will effectively identify and develop the leaders of tomorrow.