Want to hire a superstar? Know what to look for!
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With job hopping at an all-high and millennials (adults ages 19 to 35 in 2016) make up the largest share of the workforce, it’s more important than ever to hire well. A single bad hire can cost upwards of $50,000 in lost productivity and training.

How do you ensure you don’t make the costly mistake of hiring a lackluster employee? Hire for potential and not just credentials.

Most companies tend to hire for experience and competence, also known as “competence-based hiring.” But in a rapidly changing business climate, this approach is no longer sufficient. It’s increasingly important to focus not just on the hires who already have the right skills, but on those who have the greatest potential to learn new and evolving skills.


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According to Argentinian author and global expert on talent and leadership Claudio Fernandez Araoz, potential is the “ability to adapt to and grow into increasingly complex environments.” In this 2014 HBR interview, he brilliantly explains why the future of talent is rooted not in more experience and credentials, but rather in more potential:

Great organizations these days invest maybe less money on talent management, but more selectively. So first, they identify those high potentials, which have this greater ability to learn. And then, they invest much more in them.

So how do you recognize potential in candidates in a way that is actionable and scalable? Are there clear signs indicating that one candidate clearly has more potential than another, or do you just bet on your intuition, make a wild guess, and hope for the best?

Here are some ways savvy recruiters can look beyond the appeal of credentials and learn how to recruit for potential:

Look for results, not just descriptions of experiences.

One of the most powerful ways of differentiating candidates from one another is to look at results. If you look carefully, most resumes are pretty generic, skimming the surface of general job responsibilities. Instead, look for resumes in which candidates actually describe the results they’ve obtained, and how their work served their teams, companies, and industry at large.

What you want to see at this point is passion and drive, as well as a commitment to results. So look for vibrant words and adjectives as well, which show a potential employee’s personality and commitment through their words.

Assess the candidate’s level of curiosity.

According to research from global executive search firm Egon Zehnder, curiosity is one of five hallmark qualities indicative of high potential in prospective employees. Curious employees learn quickly and find better solutions because of their insatiable interest in their environments.

When interviewing for a position, look for candidates who show signs of “coachability.” Ask questions to determine whether they have a proven commitment to self-improvement, are lifelong learners, and know how to learn from their mistakes. Beware of someone who isn’t asking any questions, or is only inquiring about generic areas of the company or position. Look instead for candidates whose questions go  beyond the position to the company’s values and mission. These candidates are more likely to be your curious, big-picture thinkers.

Probe more deeply by asking the right questions.

Some questions will inspire more information from a candidate than just a rehash of their resumes. Ask questions about the strategic direction of the candidate’s career, as well as where they see themselves as part of an organization and industry. Here are a few examples of probing questions:

  • What personal experience do you have? Tell me about a time when you’ve had to take responsibility or apply certain critical skills.
  • What plans would you have for this department if you got hired?
  • How much do you know about our company? What recent events concerning your industry do you feel would affect your role here?

Take Them Out of Their Element

It’s one thing to assess a prospective employee’s skills. Determining how much potential and ambition they have is an entirely different ball game.

So change the game! Invite the candidate to a company or industry event focusing on professional development. Those eager to learn more, develop their skills and get more involved will seize the chance immediately; while those with lower levels of ambition may not. It’s also a great opportunity to witness the candidate’s leadership skills at work!


In the modern business environment, potential and ambition are of more importance than ever before. Don’t make the mistake of focusing on just credentials and missing out on your company’s best-fit leaders. Follow the above hiring habits to bring your recruiting playbook into the 21st century.

Do you tend to hire for credentials or potential?


Solange Lopes

Solange Lopes is an author, blogger and CPA. She writes about career and lifestyle topics for women at work in her blog The Corporate Sister (www.thecorporatesister.com). She’s the author of The Corporate Sister’s Guide to Taking Back Control of Your Career: 7 Steps to Reclaiming Your Work.

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