When you hire for potential

When I was 36 years old, the Board of CESI hired me as the Interim Executive Director.  I had been an English teacher and a department head in the public system, and then a grade supervisor and Dean of Studies at Lower Canada College, but I had no experience in governance or finance, and really very little experience in a senior leadership role.  To be honest, I was not Executive Director material at that point.  They gave me the job because I had worked at CESI for a few months, in a part-time role, so they at least knew I could manage things for a short-term while they did a search.  But no one would have thought that I would become the permanent Executive Director at that time.  Not even me. 

I was hired because of a need, and I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time.  I don’t remember exactly when it was that the Board decided not to go through with a full search, but I do remember being told why I was given the job.  I remember Tom Hockin, my Board Chair at the time, summarizing an in-camera conversation the Board had about hiring me – I was young but had degrees from an excellent university (Queen’s); I was working hard and seemed to be focusing on what was most important; they were impressed by my learning; and they were happy that I could communicate well.  I was a risky hire for them, but they were willing to give me a shot.  When I thanked him, I remember one of his comments clearly – Tom explained that I was the age of his daughters and he hoped that someone would give them a chance one day too.  Looking back, I think they really hired me for one reason:  they thought I had potential.

So the cover of the new Harvard Business Review caught my attention:  How to Spot Talent (Hint: Experience is Overrated).   The author argues that potential now trumps brains, experience, and competencies, and defines potential as “the ability to adapt to and grow into complex roles and environments.”  He explains that “21st Century Talent Spotting” is required because business is changing too rapidly to predict what competencies employees will need, even a few years out. Basically, the hiring process must assess the potential to learn new ones, and he offers five indicators:  the right motivation, curiosity, insight, engagement, and determination.

Now almost ten years later, as I poured over this edition of the HBR, I was reminded of two things:  I was indeed a risky appointment at the time, but it was also a very different – smaller and simpler! – organization then.  I don’t think anyone then could have predicted the growth and change.  But here’s the thing – because they hired for potential, I was grateful for the chance and I had a crazy drive to prove to them that I was worth the risk.  Still do.

One thought on “When you hire for potential

  1. I feel the same way, I was hired at LCS as a Chaplain with nothing but ordination vows and some camp experience. 9 years later I was given another chance to develop my potential when I was provided the opportunity as Assistant Head, School Life. Imagine that… from Chaplain to Assistant Head with nothing going for me but the fact that people believed in me (even when I wasn’t sure!) We all need to remember this when forming recruitment principles. Thanks AM for the important reminder.

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