Building a Talent Farm, pt. 2: How to Hire for Potential
Updated: Mar 25, 2020
Eric Berry was a lawyer. We hired him as a Technical Solution Consultant. Now he is the CEO and co-founder of TripleLift, and an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year award winner. Ruth Zohrer had no technical or industry experience. We hired her to provide technology and implementation expertise to our customers. She is now a successful executive at Mindshare, one of the world’s largest marketing and advertising brands. Many others we hired into Global Services at AppNexus, which became a nearly 200-person team, had no experience in the industry or the role they were hired to do. Yet, those same people became senior leaders at AppNexus in Services, Product, Engineering, Sales, and Finance; and many became founders and senior leaders of other companies.
What’s the one thing they all have in common? They have the qualities of high potential; the qualities that tend to exist in every individual who does impactful things in their career. As I mentioned in my previous post, early on at AppNexus we set out to create a Talent Farm. That required hiring very high potential talent into the Global Services team, training them in our industry and technology, and then creating pathways into other parts of the company to maximize their growth and impact. In this post we'll cover the first part of that framework, how to hire for potential.
First, the entire organization needs to align on its hiring philosophy. Hiring for potential is just one part of a broader philosophy. For example, at AppNexus our philosophy was:
Values First: We look for people who are driven to learn and teach, to make greatness happen despite obstacles and failure, to see and improve the whole system, and to empower the success of others.
Hire for Potential: We recognize that in identifying great talent, previous experience is not as important as the potential for growth and impact. We prioritize how high you can go over from where you have come.
Seek Diversity: We grow teams of individuals who have different styles, perspectives, experiences, backgrounds, skills, and personalities. We believe that diversity, in all its forms, promotes innovation and creates better business outcomes.
Be Inspired: There is something about each of us that inspires us in some way. It could be a personal passion, a professional skill, or simply an infectious optimism. We don’t settle for “the person can do the job”; we insist on being inspired!
Getting hiring right is the most important part of developing a talent farm. So, take the time to create your organization’s hiring philosophy and ensure all your employees understand it and why it’s important. Bake it into the collective consciousness of your team through training and ongoing discussion.
By hiring for potential, we mean the potential for growth and impact. This capability is important for talent at every level. It just so happens that the linchpin to building a talent farm is to hire them into lower levels, and then accelerate their growth up through higher levels. Further, in a talent farm every function adheres to the philosophy of hiring for potential. However, there tends to be a function where we can really push the boundary on hiring for potential. This becomes the “feeder team.” It feeds the rest of the organization with talent. At AppNexus, Global Services was that function, however other functions can serve this purpose as well.
To effectively hire for potential, a broader structured interviewing framework needs to be in place. In this framework, we define upfront the skills and competencies required for a given role, and then interview all candidates based on the same assessment criteria. High potential is only one of a handful of competencies a candidate is interviewed for. For example, in Global Services at AppNexus, we also interviewed for Analytical Horsepower, Customer Services Gene, Company Values, and then one competency that varied by role. See Google’s fantastic guide for more on how to implement structured interviewing in your organization.
The Five Hallmarks of High Potential
Talent with strong potential to grow and make an impact tend to have similar qualities. These qualities manifest very differently based on the person’s background, personality, profession, etc., but their existence in remarkably consistent. The qualities are:
Grit: Grit is the ability to demonstrate perseverance and passion through adversity while pursuing long term goals. This shows up in high potential talent in two ways. First, they have the ambition to set long term goals for themselves. These could be personal goals like writing a poetry book or running a marathon; or professional goals, like driving an important business initiative or getting an advanced certification. Second, high potentials demonstrate emotional resilience in the pursuit of their goals. They understand that the path to growth and progress is through failure and uncertainty. Their passion is constant through each challenge.
Intellectual Curiosity: High potentials have a deep and persistent to desire to learn. Their intellectual curiosity shows up as they teach themselves things for no other reason than they want to understand why things are the way they are. They tend to question conventional wisdom. They cannot just “do their job.” They need to understand why their work matters; how it contributes to the bigger picture. Their intellectual curiosity accelerates their growth and amplifies their impact while helping the organization continually improve and innovate.
Uniqueness: High potentials lean into what makes them unique. They are comfortable walking the road less traveled if that is where their passions and interests bring them. High potentials have the courage to share their perspectives, experiences, and beliefs, even when they are outside the norm. This quality supports their ability to creatively problem solve. Further, by normalizing uniqueness they foster an inclusive environment where others feel safe to be their authentic self at work.
Humility: Humility should not be confused with a lack of confidence. Humility is demonstrated by the courage to show vulnerability, the bravery to explore and understand our own weaknesses, and the wisdom to know that everyone has something to teach us. When rooted in humility, we are comfortable being wrong, we don’t hesitate to ask for help when needed, and we are open to learning from anyone. Humility allows a high potential to maximize their talents and those around them.
Self-Awareness: Self-awareness, our ability to understand and monitor our own character, feelings, motives, and desires, is directly correlated with our ability to grow and make an impact. Studies have found self-awareness to be the strongest predictor of leadership success (1, 2). By understanding ourselves, we can put our strengths to work for us and develop strategies to mitigate our weaknesses. By monitoring ourselves, which is equally important, we can self-regulate. Self-regulating allows us to witness our behavior in real time, to understand how it is impacting us and those around us, and then to decide if that behavior is helping us achieve our objective. Through this understanding and monitoring we not only bring the best of ourselves to the job at hand, we can also most effectively bring out the best in others.
The Career Narrative Interview
The approach to systematically identify these qualities is called the career narrative interview. This interview format has two phases. First, we explore their career narrative. Starting as early as the candidate’s resume allows, generally it’s where they went to college, we explore every major decision the they made and why they made it. Why did you pick that school? Why did you pick that job? Why is did you pick up that hobby? What was a high impact project you ran and why did you get involved? In responding to these “why” questions, the candidate paints a mosaic that illuminates their personal attributes, and the five qualities start to appear (or not) without having to ask about them directly.
After the narrative phase, it’s frequently necessary to complete the mosaic with some targeted questions. For example, if you aren’t sure about intellectual curiosity you may ask, “When was the last time you taught yourself something simply because you were interested? How did you approach learning that?” If interested, please see the appendix below for more examples of targeted questions.
Hiring for potential is the foundational step in creating a talent farm. There are three required components of the hiring for potential strategy: (1) an overarching hiring philosophy that employees are trained in; (2) and org design with an identified “feeder team;” and (3) a structured interviewing framework. Within the structured interviewing framework, high potential is one of the capabilities assessed, albeit the most valuable one.
Why go through all this trouble? What you need from your team will change. High potential talent will evolve with you. How ever you are doing things can be improved. High potential talent will make it better. The world will continue to be turbulent; your business will face setbacks. High potential talent will calmly persevere. Your team can be strengthened through diversity of thought and perspectives. High potential talent foster an inclusive workplace. In short, this is the talent who future-proof your business and make your organization an extraordinary place to work. Go hire them!
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Sample questions for phase two of the career narrative interview.
Give me an example of someone you had to work with, but your personalities were oil and water, you would never get along very easily. Who was that person and what did you do about it? How would that person describe your personality? (looking for grit, humility, and self-awareness in the response)
Give me an example of a time where you really wanted something (it could be at work, at school, or a personal hobby) and you failed to achieve it. What was that thing, and why was it important to you? How did you respond? What did you learn from that? (looking for grit, humility, and self-awareness in the response)
What intrinsically motivates you? Why are you motivated that way? Where did that come from? (looking for self-awareness in their response)
When was the last time you taught yourself something where you didn’t have to? Why did it interest you? How did you approach learning that? (looking for intellectual curiosity and grit in the response)
What's an example of feedback you have gotten in your career which stung to hear, it touched your ego in some way. Who gave you the feedback and why did it sting? (looking for self-awareness and humility in the response)
We like interesting people. Interesting people tend to be interesting because they have passions. And people with passions tend to give their all to what they do. And people who give their all, tend to be successful at what they do. So, what about you makes you an interesting human being? (looking for uniqueness and self-awareness in the response)