Trouble Identifying High-Potentials? Break the Traditional Mold

High-potential talent is in high demand these days. In a recent study conducted by University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, 84% of 1,361 respondents reported that demand has increased over the last five years. But while this trend doesn’t show any signs of slowing, more than half of talent development professionals surveyed said they were only moderately satisfied with their organization’s ability to identify and develop high-potential employees.

The challenge, as explained by Kip Michael Kelly, director of marketing and business development for UNC Executive Development, is in the approach most organizations take to assessing potential. Most focus on current performance rather than future potential – and few understand or recognize the difference. A lack of consistency in the criteria for identifying potential only further compounds this issue, altogether making a perfect storm for the development and acquisition of top talent.

In a time when doom and gloom warnings about the scarcity of talent abound, I can’t help but wonder if we’ve dug this hole ourselves. While top-tier candidates undeniably have higher potential than the majority of applicants, is it possible that the perceived lack of qualified talent is in reality a lack of adequate candidate assessment?

New Tools for Assessment, Same Old-School Skepticism

With these questions in mind, I was pleasantly surprised by an invitation from enterprise business software provider Infor to a briefing regarding their recent acquisition of one of the leaders in candidate assessment technology: PeopleAnswers.

I’ve written about PeopleAnswers before because its approach to candidate assessment – wherein candidates are assessed based on behavioral attributes rather than skills and competencies – is where I see the market going. In fact, PeopleAnswers’ application of assessment data in onboarding (behavioral onboarding) supports several of the essential elements of onboarding excellence Brandon Hall Group has identified as part of a forthcoming research brief, High-Performance Onboarding: A Model for Excellence.

As detailed in the press release announcing Infor’s acquisition of PeopleAnswers, this will make the Infor HCM one of the first HCM suites to deliver a real-world use case for a different kind of talent analytics – one that ties behavioral data to key performance metrics. While sitting in on the briefing Jan. 7, I couldn’t help but think of my prediction made just last week that 2014 may be the year when candidate assessment data becomes more widely integrated with other talent management processes. All told, it was a sign that the enterprise might be better able to tackle this growing challenge of identifying potential in the early stages of talent acquisition.

And yet, when it came time for Q & A, a number of analysts were skeptical of the viability of this approach to pre-hire assessments. Indeed, more than one questioned whether the value of behavioral assessments was quantifiable in “real” business metrics. While these are fair questions, questions many leaders in human resources would ask, their assumption was that it is impossible to link behavior to performance. I strongly disagree.

Breaking the Traditional Mold

The findings of UNC’s study indicate that the traditional approach to identifying high-potential talent is ineffective. Current performance does not indicate future potential. Indeed, much of the science and research that has shaped PeopleAnswers’ product supports the notion that key behavioral traits – like strategic thinking and insight or drive for results – are far better indicators of candidate’s qualifications.

But what about quantification of candidate behavior and employee performance?  Is it possible to guarantee an employee with the right behavior profile will be a good fit? No. That’s why the selection process isn’t limited to a candidate’s behavioral assessment. The bulk of selection involves interacting with the candidate, digging into their resume and discovering their personal and professional interest and goals.

As I see it, before organizations can improve their ability to develop and retain high-potential talent, they must first break out of the traditional mold where performance is the primary criteria for career development and growth.  By evaluating the behavioral traits of your most successful tenured employees, and identifying those traits that consistently drive business results, you can tailor your talent acquisition strategy to hire and promote more effectively.