Performing Potential

Harvard Business Review recently published an important and interesting article about talent acquisition for any of us who are engaged in recruiting: 21st Century Talent Spotting by Claudio Fernandez-Araoz

The executive summary of the article is as follows – I bolded some key points:

How can a person who seems so qualified for a position fail miserably in it? How can someone who clearly lacks relevant skills and experience succeed? The answer is potential, the ability to adapt and grow into increasingly complex roles and environments. For the past several decades, organizations have based their hiring decisions on competencies. But we have entered a new era of talent spotting. Geopolitics, business, industries, and jobs are changing so rapidly that it’s impossible to predict the capabilities employees and leaders will need even a few years out. The question now is not whether people have the right skills; it’s whether they have the potential to learn new ones. Research points to five markers of potential: a strong motivation to excel in the pursuit of challenging goals combined with the humility to put the group ahead of individual needs; an insatiable curiosity to explore new ideas and avenues; keen insight into connections that others don’t see; a strong engagement with work and people; and the determination to overcome obstacles. Once organizations have hired true high potentials—a challenge, given the increasing scarcity of senior talent—and identified the ones they already have, it’s crucial to focus on retaining them and on helping them live up to their potential by offering development opportunities that push them out of their comfort zones.

I read this article with great interest as I reinitiate my work as an executive search consultant and engage in the process of developing and interviewing candidates for my clients.  During the course of my search work I have been come keenly aware that the author is correct when he describes what many might already have experienced:

“…your organization will be looking for it in what will soon be one of the toughest employment markets in history—for employers, not job seekers. The recent noise about high unemployment rates in the United States and Europe hides important signals: Three forces—globalization, demographics, and pipelines—will make senior talent ever scarcer in the years to come.”

The notion that we can no longer simply rely on core competencies to recruit talent makes good sense to me.  Executive search consultants are hired to survey the market in order to find the “A players” that every organization wants to recruit; the scarcity of the talent pool is apparent. Looking for “A players” can be limiting; we end up looking for “special” people (or privileged people from “top schools”).  Recruiting people based on their potential to develop requires a new skill: the vision to see who someone is becoming.  We are always becoming (along with being who we are and who we were); seeing potential broadens the discussion about talent to a discussion about human development.

Development opportunities require us to step out of our comfort zones; we step out of our comfort zones when we have development opportunities.  What enables us to step out of our comfort zones?  How can we make these moves and see the moves co-workers are making?  Performance.  We can perform ahead of ourselves as leaders, managers, executives, and business owners.  Innovative corporate cultures use performance to develop potential in their people; we can all perform motivated, curious, insightful, engaged, and determined.

Managers and leaders can create environments that allow everyone to be “a head taller”.   The more that organizations create opportunities to perform as “high potentials”, the more people will begin to develop these traits.  It is difficult to be motivated in a critical environment; the more we see each other through the lens of who we are becoming, the easier it is to perform our motivation to succeed.  People express their curiosity when dialogue is encouraged.  Someone’s insightful observation will be heard when listening skills are encouraged and developed. The more teamwork is encouraged the more engaged people become.  When we play in a level playing field we have that much more determination.

What to do about the scarcity of the talent pool?  Let’s develop!