Diamonds in the rough; Why HR must start recruiting for potential

I was recently invited to have coffee with an old friend of mine who specifically wanted to talk about HR.  WhatHR?  Believe me, I was just as amazed as you.

As we caught up, she explained how she’s looking for a new job and recently had an interview she’d put her heart and soul into getting.  The interview went great; she couldn’t have asked for better feedback.  She had industry experience, was technically capable, enthusiastic and so on and so forth.  In short, she was everything they were looking for.

However, whilst they categorized her as ‘high potential’, she just didn’t have the experience she needed to stretch into the role just yet.  By this point, I had figured out why she had wanted to talk about HR.

According to her, a non-HR person, HR Professionals have no vision, don’t believe in people’s potential & are failing to spot the talent they need.

As I sat there offering words of comfort, I started to think about what potential really was, and where the role of the HR professional comes in.  Is it the role of HR to create strategies that allow organisations to recruit effectively, fairly and to spot the diamonds in the rough? Or are we just there to fulfil immediate needs?

What is Potential?

Potential can be defined in a number of ways according to context, but here are two equally valid, yet opposing definitions I would like to explore:

Potential is:

“The likelihood that an individual can develop into a successful leader with significantly expand-ed, higher-level leadership” – Eric Hanson

In addition to:

“Potential indicates whether someone will be able to succeed in a bigger role in the future. It is a persons ability to grow and to handle responsibilities of greater scale and scope” – Claudio Fernández-Aráoz, Boris Groysberg, & Nitin Nohriais

Potential in a VUCA world?

Whilst it is hard to argue with either of these definitions, potential is not just about a future leader or the ability to grow and develop and become more senior. Potential is also about motivation, perseverance, knowledge, understanding and business acumen as well as the willingness for an individual to learn and never stop learning. 

If you’re not familiar with one of Gandhi’s most famous quotes, here it is: “Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.” If only we as HR professionals were able to persuade our organizations that we should recruit and develop people with that ethos.

We’re entering a VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex & Ambiguous) world, and simply must shift our mindsets towards potential rather than experience. Why? Because we don’t know what skills we’ll need tomorrow.

According to Claudio Fernández-Aráoz, in his piece for Harvard Business Review this June, the attributes that make someone successful in a role today, may not make them successful tomorrow; there is just too many factors that could change.  When recruiting, we must therefore start to consider our candidates potential to learn new skills & adapt with our companies rather than the technical skills they currently possess.

How can HR professionals encourage recruiting for potential?

The world is changing; skill sets required within an organization are evolving quicker than ever before.  The likelihood of someone’s success in the future is not down to the skills they have right now, but about whether they have the right mindset and motivation for learning and change.

When it comes to professionals just starting their careers, they must think not only of what they have already done, but what about where they want to go.  As HR professionals we need to support and guide recruiting / line managers to look at the bigger picture.

We must start to look beyond the CV and skills they have acquired, and instead try to decipher what their strengths and innate qualities are. Will this candidate be suitable for tomorrow? Are they motivated, will they learn and continue to learn? Are they asking the right questions? Could they be a future leader? If so, this is talent you just can’t afford to lose.

Whilst I am not suggesting that this is appropriate for every role, there are many where you could and should look beyond current credentials into the future.  There will always be roles to fill right now, but as HR professionals I believe it is our role to help our organisations look to the future & identify those diamonds that just need polishing.

Talent Acquisition is something all HR functions struggle with, and it really says something when someone outside the industry begins to notice these issues.  The next time I have a friend who wants to talk about HR, I hope it can be about how they were just hired because someone was able to see their potential within.


What’s your view, is your organization adapting to the VUCA world do you look for potential and not just skill capability when recruiting?
Share your views with myHRcareers members on Twitter & Linkedin


Blog by myHRcareers member Ruth Gellart-Neale
Read more by Ruth here.

Ruth Gellert-Neale Polaroid2