Potential is There, If You Know How to Look For It

From the Ask Tom mailbag –


Really enjoyed your last post on Discovering Potential in an Interview – I find this quote particularly interesting: “Potential does not live in the land of hypothetical. Potential lives in the land of discretion”. Might you be able to elaborate? My take on is that in order to assess that someone has potential you a) need fairly concrete evidence of some kind rather than “what if’s” and b) you need to locate subtleties in their interview to demonstrate evidence of this – this could be completely wrong though?! I work with a number of project managers and assessing and approximating someone’s potential is fascinating to me.


Looking for potential, you are quite right. I don’t hope on a wing and a prayer, I look for concrete evidence of potential. And I don’t think it’s subtle. If it was a snake, it would bite you.

Ask this simple question. “How does a person with potential, behave?” Now, interview for that behavior. And listen.

Potential lives in the land of discretion. It’s all about decisions. How does a person, with potential beyond their current role, make decisions?

A person with potential beyond their current role, when faced with a decision, –

  • Will ask questions about the context of the decision, assembling surrounding factors
  • Will generate alternate paths to the goals, contingency plans in case something unexpected happens
  • Will take responsibility for the decision, NOT give the decision to someone else, or ask the decision be made for them
  • Will be able to talk about (articulate) their internal process for making one decision over another
  • Will create visual representations of their decision making process, either checklists or flow charts identifying elements of the decision

In the interview, ask questions about specific projects where decisions were made and interview for these behaviors.

Tell me about a project where things did NOT go as planned, where you had to make a decision that changed the direction of the project?

  • What was the project?
  • What was the length of the project?
  • What was the purpose of the project?
  • What happened, that required you to make a decision?
  • How did you identify that things were going wrong?
  • What decision was made?
  • When was the decision made?
  • Who made the decision?
  • Who was accountable, if the decision turned out to be wrong?
  • What factors did you consider when making the decision?
  • How did you communicate the decision to others involved in the project?
  • What was the impact of the decision?
  • What was the result of the decision?

You will either get answers from the candidate or you will get blank stares. Ask about more than one project. Every project has decision points. There is concrete evidence of potential, one way or the other, if you, as the interviewer, will look for it.

We kick off Hiring Talent – 2013 in January. Watch for details.

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