Assessing for Potential

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In this blog, originally shared as a guest blog by The Firm, Martin Kavanagh, Head of Assessment at Amberjack, shares his experiences of assessing for potential.

A year ago I joined Amberjack as Head of Assessment. There was a lot that made me want to join Amberjack, but above all I was attracted by their vision for early career talent* which was very well aligned with my own:

“Enabling a world in which individuals are hired and progressed solely based on their future potential, rather than past experience or privilege.”

In this article, I aim to share some of my thoughts around this vision and how organisations can assess for future potential.


To start thinking about assessing for future potential, let’s first look at an example of favouring past experience/privilege.

After completing my Masters, I was fortunate enough to gain a place on a graduate scheme for one of the UK’s best known companies along with around 200 others. I recently re-read my feedback report from my successful attendance at the assessment centre. I scored really well on the competency related to leadership. My feedback notes gave some insight into why:

“When responding to the question about past leadership experience, Martin gave an excellent example of how he had shown the behaviours we would want whilst leading a trombone section on a music tour.”

This was the first time I had read this feedback report since I had been fully inducted and immersed in the Amberjack vision, which meant I looked at it through a new lens. I empathise with the assessor. They had probably spent the day hearing examples from recent graduates of a group project they “took the role of leader for” on their degree course. My answer would have stood out. But I was only able to use that example as I was lucky enough to live in an area with a fantastic music foundation that took us on tours and I was lucky enough to have parents who paid for music lessons for me and drove me around the borough for rehearsals and concerts.


What was wrong with the approach this company took?

This organisation would proudly say in their attraction materials that they were looking for their “leaders of the future”. Given this, it intuitively makes sense to assess leadership capability. This in itself is not the problem. The way they went about assessing leadership capability is the problem. For the vast majority of people applying for the role, the bulk of their “experience” would have come from an academic system were you are rewarded for being an individual contributor. You need to get your head down, meet milestones, and complete exams in silence. In fact, you could argue, those best at leadership would be inspiring others to do their work for them – in the academic world this is called plagiarism and is heavily punished!

I was reflecting on the recent research we did in collaboration with The Firm which showed that the majority of organisations are still asking early career talent for their CVs and a significant minority are still using competency-based “tell me about a time when…..” methods of assessment. I’m not discounting the value of competency-based/experience-based approaches entirely. They certainly have their place. When I was recruited to my position, it would have been a very bold move for the leadership team at Amberjack to hire me without asking me about my experience of designing, and advising clients on, assessment and selection methods. Therefore, a CV would have been helpful in doing an initial appraisal of my suitability for the role. “Tell me about a time when” questions can also give deep insight into the level an experienced hire has been operating at. Their value does however become very questionable when looking at early career talent and looking for potential.


So how do you assess for potential?

At Amberjack we have a model of potential that was built from first principles to identify the qualities that set apart high potential early career talent. Using the available academic literature on potential, over 5 years of application data, insights from our clients, and the thoughts of futurologists in the changing world of work, we identified four key pillars which define a candidate’s potential to succeed and grow: Applied Intellect, Creative Force, Grit, and Digital Mindset. We then designed, and continue to design, assessment methods which assess these areas in an engaging way.

Using this model, the organisation who recruited me as a fresh graduate would have realised that rather than asking about how I had led in the past, they should have been exploring my potential. Specifically, in terms of leadership, they should have been interested in the extent to which I had the Grit and the Applied Intellect to understand when is the right time to be delivering through others, and how effective I would be at bringing people with me on the journey.


How can you get started in assessing for potential?

Whilst I would absolutely recommend you look at your assessment model/framework to ensure it is assessing potential in the way the Amberjack model does, there are three simpler steps that you can take to move towards assessing for potential.

  1. Help your candidates prepare for assessments – you shouldn’t be wanting to catch candidates out. One of the most important pieces of feedback we are always interested in is the extent to which candidates have been given the opportunity to demonstrate what they can bring to the role. Giving candidates the space to show what they can bring to a role is how you’ll tap into true potential. We encourage our clients to provide detailed preparation materials and, where appropriate, pre-event coaching calls to help ensure candidates can demonstrate their true potential.
  2. When interviewing, have back up questions to your standard competency-based questions – your organisation may not be ready to give up their well-understood interview questions. So if you are assessing a role where experience isn’t necessary for success, and it’s potential you’re after, prepare future focused questions looking at how the candidate would behave in particular situations. As long as the scenario is allowing the candidate to demonstrate the same behaviours, you can use it if the individual struggles to find an example for the original question.
  3. Review your exercises with potential and privilege in mind – are you asking candidates to do something that would favour people who have had certain types of work experience? This could be as simple as using corporate jargon that candidates would only understand if they had certain experiences but it could be more baked into the assessment method itself. For example, if you are asking people as part of an exercise to make inferences from a profit and loss account, whilst this may be job-relevant, you are favouring those who have worked in financial environments. In early careers recruitment this may reduce the diversity and inclusivity of your candidate pool, favouring individuals who have been given certain types of opportunities. I would encourage you to review your assessment materials with this in mind.

Like many other recruiters, you may indeed be looking to hire your leaders of the future. To do this, you need to understand their genuine potential rather than understanding what they have had the opportunity to do in the past.

*individuals who are looking for entry level roles where no specific work experiences are needed

View this blog on The Firm’s website.

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