Tag Archives: potential

How to See Evidence of Potential in an Interview

“If you are not going to let me hope,” Monica protested, “then explain to me how I got this job? When I was promoted to manager, I had never been a manager before. If the interview had only centered around my prior role as a supervisor, then how did the interviewer make the judgment that I had the potential to be a manager?”

“Do you think the interviewer only had hope for you in this manager role?” I asked. “Monica, I watched you, in your role as a supervisor for three years. I sat in on the debriefing after you were interviewed for your current role as a manager. Do you think that decision was made based on hope?”

“Not if you were in the room,” Monica admitted. “But, then how did you know I had the potential to be a manager if I had never been a manager before?”

“Okay, let’s step through some questions. As a supervisor, do you think you were operating as effectively as someone in the top half of a supervisor’s role or the bottom half?”

Monica smiled politely, nodding, “Top.”

“And in the top half, were you operating as effectively as someone in the top third, middle third or bottom third?”

Monica continued to shake her head. “Top,” she repeated.

“What is the evidence for that?” I pressed.

“You always want evidence,” Monica replied. “My projects always came in on time, within the specs from the customer and always within budget.”

“And why did your projects always come in on time? Did you always get the easy projects or were there problems?”

“There are always problems, but you know, 90 percent of the obstacles are predictable. For example, permits are always a problem. And permits are outside my control, it’s a government agency that processes the permits. But I took the time to get to know the inspectors down at the building department. I know it is not part of my job description and sometimes they are not the easiest people to get acquainted with, but I also know it’s important.”

“So, you took the time to go beyond prescribed duties in your role as a supervisor. You anticipated obstacles that might get in the way and created alternate paths, to solve problems that might occur,” I recounted.

“Well, you know, if you don’t have a relationship with the building inspectors, then you don’t know what criteria they are using to get your project approved. And if you don’t know what they are looking for, your project can get stuck. It’s easy to blame it on the building department, but if your project is 18 months in scope, thirty days might mean the difference between an on-time finish or having to pay liquidated damages for coming in late. There is a lot of risk.”

“So, when we decided that you had the potential to be a manager, it is because we could see evidence of that potential beyond your role as a supervisor.”

How to Interview for Potential

“I want to hire this person. Of all the candidates I have talked with, they seem to show the most promise,” Monica explained.

“So, you haven’t made up your mind?” I asked.

“No, I said I want to hire this person,” she clarified.

“Are you basing your decision on evidence? You sound uncertain.”

“You are right. The level of work in their previous job is short of the level of work we need in this position. But it might be that she was just underemployed,” Monica thought out loud.

“So, far, you are basing your decision on a promise and a maybe,” I clarified.

“Yeah, but how do you know? How do you know whether or not she has the potential?”

“I asked you if you were basing your decision on evidence. Is there evidence of potential? Look, you spent a great deal of time properly writing the role description. You carefully organized the tasks into Key Result Areas. In each Key Result Area, you defined the level of work. In your interview, you either establish evidence in the level of work or you don’t.”

“You mean I can’t hope?”

Greatest Evidence of Potential in a Team Member

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Is there any way to determine the long term potential of someone early in their career? Based on your workshop, I assume the answer is “no,” although I am hoping the answer is “yes.”


Your assumption is correct, a manager’s pursuit of the crystal ball related to a person’s potential is misguided. But your interest in long term potential is absolutely necessary for every manager-once-removed. While the manager is most often focused on productivity, the manager-once-removed must spend time thinking about the long term health of the entire team, and that includes the potential in individual players.

Stephen Clement taught me to remember, “It’s all about the work.” Focus on the work. If you want to see a team member’s potential, look at their work. Work output related to the task assignment will reveal hard evidence of potential.

Does the team member exhibit any of these characteristics.

  • All work is completed on time and within the quality spec of the task?
  • The team member appears to take minor problems and challenges in stride?
  • The team member recognizes larger problems quickly and reports possible solutions along with the problem?
  • The team member appropriately experiments with task elements and work sequence that produces effective changes in processes?
  • The team member volunteers for tasks beyond their current role?
  • The team member remains appropriately optimistic in the face of minor setbacks of task difficulty, and describes the learning that occurs from a failed task?

The greatest evidence of potential is evidence of potential.

A Decision Based on Hope?

Sylvia was perplexed. Difficulty trusting her judgment. “I have this gut feeling that Porter would make a good supervisor. But, he is our best technician. If I promote him and it doesn’t work out, I might lose my best technician.”

“Why do you feel Porter has the potential to be supervisor?” I asked.

“Intuition,” Sylvia replied. “The only thing I am concerned about is his people skills. As a technician, he is a good producer, and whenever anyone has a question, he is the lead guy. Whenever anyone has a problem, they talk to Porter. When anyone has a decision to make, Porter gets consulted. He has a knack for knowing what needs to get done next. I can see his planning skills, always looking ahead. He knows when materials are supposed to arrive, when we need to order, even for the longer lead time stuff.”

“Then what is your hesitation?”

“Sometimes, his people skills are a little rough,” she explained. “I don’t want to promote him and then find out he is a dictator.”

“Rather than assume, or guess, or hope that Porter has the potential to be a supervisor, how could you find out? How could you find out before you promote him? How could you confirm that he is not a dictator?”

“I guess I could talk to him,” Sylvia searched.

“And, so, he tells you he is not a dictator. Is that enough? Is that enough evidence to make a firm decision to promote him?” I pressed.

“Well, no.”

“Then how? How can we create tangible evidence that he has the potential to work effectively with other people?”

“I guess I could give him something to do where he has to work with other people in the capacity of a leader?” Sylvia tested.

“Not a permanent role assignment, but project work. Give Porter a project where he is the project leader for a specific task that requires him to use the resources of other people on a project team. If he fails, you have a broken project, big deal, you can manage that risk. If he is successful, you will have tangible evidence on which to base your decision. Not a hope, a wing and a prayer, but tangible evidence.”

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.

Discovering Potential Capability in an Interview

Quick excerpt from a candidate interview –

“How are you given work assignments?” I asked.

“Well, I meet with the PMs on a weekly basis, just to catch up on progress completed the prior week, update them on logistics for this week. I have to coordinate with our manufacturing shop to make sure the manufactured cabinets and installation components are all coming out to staging at the right time to be installed. So, I really have to figure things out based on piecing together all these moving parts,” the candidate replied.

“How often are you given work assignments?” I pressed.

“Well, even though I recast everything on a weekly basis, I am really trying to run, believe it or not, one year ahead of schedule. In my role as project scheduler, I use a project management software to book out the jobs based on various schedules and the contracts. It’s not really my job to dissect everything, but I do it anyway, just to double-check, make sure no one is asking for the impossible. It’s only when I plan out a year, especially for some of our big jobs, that I can schedule in all the smaller jobs. Things get very fluid at times. It’s easy to get in the weeds.”

This candidate was currently in a Stratum II role. It was his job to publish details in a 60-day look forward production schedule. To do that, he had to accumulate data from several sources and coordinate people, materials and equipment. From one week to the next, there were significant changes to that schedule that required constant coordination and re-coordination. To be effective required solid S-II (Cumulative) processing.

The question on the table is potential. What is this candidate’s potential? Is it possible that the candidate has greater potential capability than is required by his current role?

I always examine the difference between prescribed duties and discretionary duties. Prescribed duties in this role required a 60-day look forward, a published schedule. As long as that 60-day schedule was published, no one had complaints.

But it’s in the world of discretionary judgment that effectiveness lives. “It’s only when I plan out a year, especially for some of our big jobs, that I can schedule in all the smaller jobs.”

“Oh, really. Tell me more,” I wondered.

“You can’t just schedule projects one after the other. Project schedules have their ups and downs. We have a committed crew on a large project, but we might get a project delay waiting for another trade to finish a segment. If that happens, I have a crew that I can temporarily shift to a smaller project. If I can do that, sometimes I can accelerate the schedule of the smaller project, knock it out and get ahead.”

As I listen to this description and ask more drill-down questions, it appears this candidate may be moving in transition from S-II (Cumulative) to S-III (Serial) applied capability. He is planning “what-if” scenarios, alternate paths to the goal, and truly working a 12-month schedule. I don’t make this judgment based on a hope and a prayer. I make this judgment based on real facts and behavior.

Potential does not live in the land of hypothetical. Potential lives in the land of discretion. How does this person make decisions? What is the Time Span of those decisions?

Interviewing for Potential

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Many proponents of Requisite Organization claim that a person needs to have work commensurate with their potential capability to be engaged and fulfilled at work. They claim that being required to work at a level of work that is below one’s potential capability can lead to high levels of stress and negatively affect a person’s health. Assuming this is true, how do you assess a person’s potential capability in an interview? If you ask questions about their past experience to assess the level of work they have done before this may not reflect their potential capability (because they may not have had the opportunity to do work commensurate with their potential capability before). Doesn’t this approach entail the risk of hiring someone who will be frustrated, stressed or bored by the level of work in the position?


You make it sound like working below one’s potential capability is devastating. Everyone works on Time Span task assignments all over the place. What is necessary is that a significant portion of one’s work be fully challenging. And understand that this is ALWAYS a moving target. People constantly grow and mature, we are constantly changing, our Time Span capability constantly increasing. Matching the Level of Work with capability is, as Elliott puts it, always a “work in progress.” So, we do the best we can. As managers, we do the best we can to make this match.

Conducting a candidate interview is likely the most difficult assessment challenge we face, as managers. In most managerial situations, we can observe behavior and output, we can have managerial conversations with our team members, we can ask very direct questions about problems that have to be solved and decisions that have to be made. It’s a walk in the park compared to the candidate interview.

Hiring Talent always carries risk. Making the wrong hire is expensive. It costs dollars, time, energy, morale. I will only make hiring decisions based on evidence of work output based on past experience. I will not speculate, I will not hope, I will not assume. I will only hire on evidence. This means I will restrict my questions to real situations that can be observed and verified.

Does that mean I might miss potential? Perhaps. But I don’t use the interview to assess potential capability. I use the interview to assess applied capability. I am not a clinical psychologist, I am not a soothsayer, I am not a fortune teller. I am a practitioner.

And, as a practitioner, here is one method to get an accurate picture of the prospective candidate.

I take the resume and work it chronologically. This means, I start at the back and work forward, because resumes are typically presented in reverse chronology. I have difficulty seeing patterns and progress in reverse, so I start young and work forward. This simple chronological method reveals natural progress of increasing capability as someone moves through their career. Gets me really close to their highest level of current applied capability.

I have some other thoughts about interviewing for potential capability, so let’s pick that up tomorrow.