More Than Experience or Education, Employers Want Candidates With Potential

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Recently, I interviewed a potential new hire for our tech department. This engineer wasn’t familiar with PHP, one of the primary languages used to build our company’s technology, but that wasn’t necessarily a concern.

Our chief technology officer, Michael Henderson, and I agree that the right candidate can always learn PHP on the job. There are more important things to consider: Is he a smart, curious developer hoping to grow his skills? Will he take a creative approach to solving problems? Will he fit in with our company culture?

When our team evaluates a candidate, we’re interested in their technical skills, but we’re also looking at the whole picture. If we only considered people who understood PHP, then we might not find the best person for the job.

As it turns out, we’re not alone. Based on a recent hiring survey conducted by TopResume, our resume-writing business, 45 percent of employers are placing their bets on a candidate’s potential, even ahead of their experience and education.

I wasn’t that surprised by these results. To a degree, it’s intuitive. For example, nearly every entry-level hire is based solely on a candidate’s potential. Even after an individual has gained relevant experience in a field, I’m interested in learning whether the person has taken steps to improve their skill set and, if so, how they’ve applied those skills to add value in their previous roles. In other words, I’m trying to gauge whether the candidate will be a high-potential employee at our company.

Why Potential Is Key

Potential, which is defined as demonstrating the capacity to become or develop into something in the future, is paramount. When a company is looking to hire someone, they want candidates who can apply what they’ve learned to help the company grow. Someone with high potential is a problem-solver who will bring value to the role.

Additionally, potential helps solve the war for talent and compensates for the lack of qualified candidates. Businesses may be located in areas where there aren’t many qualified individuals or, for certain jobs, hiring the most qualified candidates is too costly. Looking for candidates with high potential is a way to bridge that talent gap, allowing businesses to make hires when supply and demand are a bit out of sync.

How to Determine Potential

Through a candidate’s resume, interviews, and follow-ups, you can determine their potential. Whenever I interview someone, especially for a role they haven’t done before, I ask myself the following questions to determine their potential:

  1. Did they take the time to really research the position and our company?
  2. Do their questions reflect a genuine interest in the opportunity, and are they seeking clarity to determine if this is the right move for them?
  3. Can they draw a parallel between their previous experience and this job’s requirements?
  4. In previous jobs, did they take initiative to invest in their personal development, such as taking a course, because it opened up a new opportunity?
  5. Is this person a problem-solver?
  6. Will they fit in with the company culture?
For more expert recruiting insights, check out the latest issue of Magazine:

Experience and Personality Still Count

Our recent research confirms there’s still a lot of emphasis placed on a candidate’s experience and personality. Recruiters and hiring managers told us those two qualities rank just below potential when they assess a candidate.

Since the average corporate job listing receives about 250 applications, a person must demonstrate they have enough experience to do the job in order to stand out from the crowd. For most roles, it’s the experience demonstrated on a resume that opens up the first door, but it’s the potential revealed in the interview that lands the job. This is why it’s important to look at the candidate’s whole package before making a hiring decision.

I’ve always found personality to be another key ingredient in selecting the right candidate. You need to determine if the person is the right cultural fit for your business. Someone can have potential but not be the right match for your team. For example, a candidate may have tremendous potential, but their values might not line up with your company’s values. It’s important to consider how this person will impact the rest of your employees if hired.

Finding that Perfect Candidate

The first step to finding the right candidate is to review each resume and select those with relevant experience. During the interview process, consider the full scope of what makes a candidate a great hire, including the person’s desire and ability to grow and adapt to new circumstances and challenges at work.

This willingness to learn is described as a candidate’s “learning quotient” or “learnability quotient” (LQ). While measuring a candidate’s LQ is still a relatively new concept, many believe this practice will eventually become a standard part of the hiring process. It’s such an important component in determining a person’s potential that I recommend employers get ahead of the trend and begin to familiarize themselves with LQ now. Although there are a few standard LQ tests available online, you can develop your own ways to gauge a candidate’s LQ during the in-person interview without resorting to new tech.

Once you’ve narrowed down the candidates to your top choices, the final step is to select the person best suited for the position. This can be a challenge because every job is different, and there’s no one definition of an “A player.” What’s important for that role will determine who’s an A player for that job. As with the engineering job our company is looking to fill, the right candidate for any role will strike that balance between potential and experience.

That said, whenever I’m down to two candidates and everything else is equal, the person who is genuinely interested and wants the job is the person who lands the job. They have the most potential.

Jeff Berger is CEO and founder of Talent Inc.

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Jeff Berger is the CEO and founder of Talent Inc., the global leader in technology-enabled career services. Through its suite of brands — TopResume, TopCV, and TopInterview — the company helps professionals tell the best versions of their career stories, enabling them to stand out from the crowd and land the right job, faster. He founded the company in 2014 and is based in its New York City headquarters.