The Science of Potential

One of my first roles in HR was managing recruitment for the Australian subsidiary of a global oil company, and my stakeholders included the Marketing Director. He was a tough, smart and successful person who always seems to know exactly what he wanted. So when he asked me to find him people with ‘fire in the belly,’ I was loath to push back on this singular selection criterion.

Eventually I realised that like most managers, he did not know why it is that some people are more successful than others. How they do what they do was inherently less interesting to him than delivered business outcomes. Later still I discovered that is it possible through research to identify what differentiates the best from the rest.

In fact, I still remember reading about a study of call centre operators in the United States that opened my mind on this topic. One of the questions being examined was how such operators cope with regional variation in accent. [Think JFK’s Boston lilt versus a deep South drawl.]  It turns out that the best operators unconsciously mirrored the pace of their caller rather than try and put on a different accent. This matched pacing was enough to create rapport.

Fast forward to today. Choosing who to hire or promote remains one of the most difficult and impactful decisions a leader can make, and yet most organisations still don’t have tools for accurately assessing potential. There are, of course, many models of potential based on what traits and abilities matter to success in various roles, but opinion is not a good enough basis for making critical business decisions.

Mercer has just completed a critical review [see The Science of Assessing Potential, Prof Rob Briner and Prof Denise Rousseau] of some 2500 studies with data on more than 500,000 people to build a framework for assessing potential. Some of the findings are common knowledge e.g. the important of cognitive abilities. Others are surprising. It turns out, for example, that emotional intelligence and learning agility add no new value in assessing potential.

The study also differentiates stable potential, that is difficult to change during adulthood, and malleable potential, that can be more easily learned. This distinction can be a game changer for organisations, underpinning decisions on who to hire, who to promote and what to focus on in development programs.

Thinking back on my days in the oil industry, it strikes me as fitting that an industry so well-endowed in the hard sciences should also be an early adopter in the science of potential.