How to Hire High Potentials

I don’t like the term “high potentials.” To me it smacks of elitism and ranking people based on a set of made-up criteria. On the other hand, I believe we are all high potentials and that it is a matter of fit that may make us more successful in one setting and less successful in another. Your set of skills and experience that got you ahead in a formal, bureaucratic organization may not garner you more success if you take that job at the startup. The opposite may also be true. If you feel like you’re always swimming upstream while everyone else is lazily floating down, you may soar if you make the leap to the less formal, innovative company.

So it comes down to finding the right fit, and if you are responsible for hiring, it is your job to find people who can be high potentials in your organization. The following principles will equip you to make the best hiring decisions, giving you the right talent to support your mission while providing opportunity for employees to reach their potential.

Assess Your Organization

Before you hire anyone, you should understand your own organization. If the values and priorities haven’t been well articulated, take some time to think about what you stand for as a company and the types of people who tend to succeed in your organization. What skills and personality traits have proven effective? What individuals have been promoted and which ones have thrived in their new roles? Knowing what makes your enterprise tick will guide you toward better hiring decisions.

Asking good questions is the key to uncovering your organization’s culture. I strongly advise an Appreciative Inquiry approach, which looks for the positive, life-giving aspects of your organization. A formal cultural assessment might be useful to get a broad picture of strengths and opportunities.

Assess Your Position(s)

Dig deeper into your organization’s needs and consider the strengths, competencies, and traits required for the position(s) you have open. Most job descriptions are outdated and incomplete, so go beyond what the position was about when that document was written and consider changes in the industry, technology, or company. There are several tools that can help in this effort, such as the Lominger FYI competency book and accompanying sort deck, or the Position Information Questionnaire (PIQ).

Plan Your Recruitment Strategy

Hiring talent that fits with your organization – those who will be high potentials in your company – takes an intentional effort. Armed with your position assessment that tells you what kind of person will succeed in the position and with your company overall, you need to create a strategy to go where you will most likely encounter those types of candidates. Don’t take the passive approach, hoping that the best candidate will naturally apply for your position.

Advertise in those places where successful people in your industry or the job field hang out. Use social networking, especially LinkedIn, to review profiles and proactively reach out to potential candidates. Talk with current successful employees and ask them for referrals. Attend professional development workshops and networking events to get to know candidates in their native habitat.

It’s best to create a short checklist to ensure you’re considering all of your needs. It’s easy to get sidetracked by one aspect of a person’s skills and experience and ignore something else that may be just as important. The following checklist is from my book: A Small Business Guide to Peak Performance Through People.

Screenshot 2013-12-28 10.19.23You can make your checklist as detailed as you need to; the point is to avoid biases and blind spots that may lead you to hire someone that doesn’t fit.

Read resumes thoroughly, but realize that they are a marketing tool. Some people are really good at putting together a resume, or they get professional help to maximize this important tool. Others may not have an impressive resume, but could have the right experience and competencies you need. Remember, it’s only a piece of the puzzle. It’s best to make a list of observations and questions as you go through the resume. What do you want to know more about? What do you want more examples of? What needs to be clarified?

Once you’ve narrowed your list of candidates and begin scheduling interviews, don’t rely on the interview questions provided by your human resources partner or from a web site. They may be valuable to a point, but to really find out if a candidate will fit well, you have to customize your questions based on your needs and expectations, not a set of generic interview questions.

Intuition vs. Data

Sometimes a hiring decision comes down to a gut feeling. If you’ve done your homework and followed your  checklist, you know whether someone is capable of doing the job and their degree of success somewhere else, but sensing if they will fit and succeed in your organization often comes down to intuition.

Keep a matrix – or scorecard – from all of your interviews and hiring checklists. This will give you a visual of the data (education, experience, technology, etc.). You can choose to give points for different items on the checklist, or simply have a check box. A color-coded system may also be helpful, which allows you to use red-yellow-green to show whether requirements are met, not met, or somewhere in between. Yellow can indicate an area where you’re just not sure how you feel. If you believe the person is otherwise a good fit, but one area is giving you heartburn, have someone else review their qualifications with you, and possibly interview them. It may ultimately be your decision, but it’s important to listen to trusted advisors and second opinions.

A Fit From Both Sides

Finding high potentials is about intentionally identifying what you need from a person in each position you’re hiring for, then developing a strategy to find and assess candidates until you are certain you have the right fit. But the candidate is accountable for doing their own fit assessment throughout the selection process, and they are easily distracted by the need to be gainfully employed.

Candidates, especially ones who are unemployed, shoot themselves in the foot when they allow the potential for a position to cloud their judgment. Suddenly things like values, company culture, daily tasks, and management philosophy aren’t as important as a regular paycheck and health insurance. So a company committed to ensuring best fit – of hiring people who will be high potentials in their organization – must be diligent to help the candidate think through the process.

High potentials in your organization won’t look exactly the same as high potentials in another organization. It’s about fit and the process used to identify someone who will thrive in your culture. Taking the time to evaluate your organization’s values, the requirements of the position (beyond the job description), and intentionally going about the selection process, will ensure you find high potentials who will move your organization toward achieving its goals. You’ll reduce turnover and frustration associated with managing performance that doesn’t fit with your needs. Instead, your attention can be on maximizing potential that aligns with your company and optimizes your culture.