Individual potential is like a glass of water. The size of your glass determines your capacity or the upper limits of what you can achieve in a particular area. For example, even with little experience (water), Michael Jordon’s potential in basketball (size of the glass) was much greater than mine – his upper limit of performance was much greater. So, even if I practiced basketball every day for 20 years, the size of my glass puts a limit on how much that practice and experience would benefit me. Basically, I could never be as good as Michael.
That said, there are four factors that determine employee potential in a work context, and all can be measured. These factors are:
- Cognitive Ability (intelligence, problem-solving skills, etc.)
- Behavioral Style (personality)
- Development Needs
Cognitive ability is by far the most important factor to consider, as research has clearly shown the strong relationship between it and an employee’s ability to effectively solve problems, learn and benefit from training, adapt to changing issues and circumstances, and even helps determine the employee’s level of job satisfaction. In essence, the smarter someone is, the more likely they will learn and benefit from experience and training – a very intelligent person has a very high-capacity glass.
MEASURE: a valid and reliable cognitive ability test appropriate to the level you wish your employee to attain. We prefer using a combination of numerical and verbal reasoning tests for most professional and managerial-level positions.
The second factor is behavioral style or personality (i.e., the typical approach that one takes to people and problems). This helps determine the roles and work environments in which employees are most likely to reach their potential. For example, someone who is smart, cautious and comfortable working alone would have a high capacity for work as an accountant. However, his/her potential as a sales representative would be very limited, because that role would put him out of his comfort zone – basically, the very smart accountant may quickly learn a great deal about sales, but the discomfort and stress that he would feel in the field would put a cap on his ability to use that knowledge and experience effectively.
MEASURE: a valid and reliable work-related personality questionnaire that assesses attributes that are important to the employee’s future role. Results should be verified and supported by a standardized structured behavior-based interview.
The third factor is motivation. As we all know, each of us is energized and engaged by different things and will invest more effort in tasks and situations that we find enjoyable. Using our previous analogy, motivation is our drive to fill our glass with water. It is our tapped or untapped potential.
So, if we have the intelligence to learn from experience and the personality that is suited to a particular job, then our glass is large. However, if we are unmotivated, then we will not put effort into filling that glass or using its contents to our employer’s advantage. There are environmental factors that many people find motivating and are often considered when determining the quality of an employer (Here is a link to a yearly publication that ranks employers on such factors). However, you will also want to assess an individual’s key motivators to understand whether a particular role will engage them before making the hiring decision.
MEASURE: a valid and reliable work-related motivational survey/questionnaire, supported by relevant structured interview questions.
The final factor to consider is an individual’s development needs, considering the future or potential role. Even if our glass was large and we were motivated to fill it, a critical development need may put a temporary cap on the amount of water we could add. For example, a very high-potential accountant may have poor communication skills, thus limiting her success in the role of team leader. Until this is overcome through training, experience, coaching, etc., her potential will be limited.
MEASURE: Any of the above tests, questionnaires and interviews will uncover gaps between the individual’s current skill and experience level and that required in a future role.