Identifying potential

What is potential?

Potential is likelihood, something that exists only as a possibility.  What we try to do in the world of work is to estimate that likelihood. In essence, potential is an estimation of the likelihood of an individual being able to do or become something in the future within a specific context.

Estimation: we don’t measure possibility in people, we make an estimation about their future

Likelihood: we are talking about possibility, something that may or may not happen

Something: we need to ask ourselves, “potential for what?”

Future: a future that we don’t know what it’s going to look like

Context: what great will look like in an organisation may be different in another organisation.

This definition is intentionally vague for two reasons:

The first reason is that it seeks to define potential for what it really is, i.e. not a psychological construct but a referential concept, not something that can be identified, measured or predicted, but an estimation, an attempt at predicting. 

The second reason is that anything more precise needs to be defined in context. Potential for what? To be a specialist? To be a leader? A leader in general or a specific kind of leader? How far in the future? The further in time the more variables interplay and we can no longer call this anything but guessing. And then we need to understand where. Is talent context-dependent? How transferable is it? What does great look like now? What will it look like at this or that organisation in the future?

How is potential measured?

The process of identifying high potential talent is not always definitive. What can be measured are characteristics that are likely to enable people to do or become something in the future. For example, if you believe that in order for someone to be a successful leader in your organisation in the future they need to be able to process complex data quickly and accurately, demonstrate confidence and ability to influence others, and be able to effectively deal with their and other’s emotions, then it would make sense for you to assess cognitive ability, personality and emotional intelligence. This, of course, leads to some challenges and questions, such as “How do I know what characteristics will be required from my leaders in the future?”, “How far in the future?”, “How can I ensure I’m embracing diversity and not ‘cloning’ people?” In any case, a lot of careful thought is required before even deciding what tools and methods will be used to assess individuals.

Should organisations really work with potential?

As highlighted above, there are certainly some benefits associated to potential-related practices, but it is not as easy as to assess a group of people, label them and expect that a few employees will unconditionally commit to driving success in the future while the rest of the organisation happily follows them. There are different ways of dealing with the many issues mentioned above, but the first two things to consider when deciding to implement potential-related practices are: 1) define potential for what it really is, i.e. just an estimation, and 2) move as much as you can from exclusive to inclusive talent management.


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