By Kevin C. Ngo, Nick Carter, & Anthony Ball   

Since the publication of our article 10 Key Considerations when Identifying High Potential, we have been asked how to go about assessing potential. It’s no surprise that there is no single best way to assess for potential. Each piece in the puzzle of potential is different and requires us to look at different types of evidence. Figure 1 below details the many ways of assessing potential, with each approach looking at different aspects of People Measures’ high potential model.

Figure 1. Methods of measuring potential by factors and components of potential. N.B. Assessment centres and development centres are composed of a combination of activities, and therefore do not directly measure each component of the high potential model. What is measured in each centre would depend on the activities chosen.

In this article, we will demystify high potential assessment so that you can find the right mix of methods for identifying high potential talent in your organisation. Below follows a list of 10 practical ways to measure an individual’s potential to progress and perform effectively in roles of greater complexity, scale and ambiguity.

1.         Manager ratings

In our first article, we argued that performance does not equal potential. That said, it is not credible in any organisation to promote low performers. It is therefore worthwhile for you to set a minimum standard of current performance as a first hurdle in your high potential talent identification process.

The type of performance measure you choose is critical to the assessment process. For most organisations, the performance metrics available are typically KPIs and other outcome-based data. You may decide to use such outcome data as the benchmark in your assessment process, an approach which would be appropriate if all candidates were in similar roles. However, if it is difficult to make comparisons using your current performance data or if you are trying to compare individuals from different areas and functions within your organisation, assessing each individual against a common set of competencies can provide a level playing field.

When we talk about competencies, we mean measurable behaviours at work, not outcomes or knowledge, skills and attributes which are not clearly demonstrated at work. To illustrate this difference, we ask you to imagine that you have decided to compare two individuals in your sales team who are responsible for different products in different markets with different sales targets. How could you make a fair comparison based on their performance data? One way in which you can compare these two salespeople is through managerial ratings on a set of relevant competencies. In this method, each salesperson’s immediate manager would complete a questionnaire rating typical behaviour displayed in the workplace. In this way, you can compare these two salespeople on how they sell rather than how much they sell. For a larger project, a normed report may then be produced which indicates how each individual compares to their peers against the competencies identified as important for success in your organisation.

2.         360° / Multi-rater feedback

Another popular and robust method of assessing performance is through a 360° feedback process. This allows you to gather a greater range of views of the individual from themselves, peers, direct reports, managers and other stakeholders in order to produce a more objective assessment. Alternative multi-rater designs are also available to you if a 360° feedback process is inappropriate. Collecting data from different rater groups provides an insight into how different competencies are demonstrated in different areas of work or observed by different stakeholders. This insight is particularly important considering that an immediate manager may not have opportunities to see how an individual works with other people such as direct reports.

3.         Career aspiration and engagement interviews

Another consideration when assessing high potential talent is the individual’s aspiration to work at a more complex and senior level. We have argued in our previous article that an individual must be motivated to progress their career and operate at a high level in order to be considered high potential talent. It is therefore important to openly explore individuals’ ambitions, life circumstances and plans to determine whether transitioning to higher level and more complex roles is something to which they genuinely aspire.

When we talk about potential, we mean potential for your organisation. It is critical for organisations to invest in developing people that want to stay and be productive. Besides an individual’s aspiration to operate at a higher level, it is important for you to find out the likelihood of them contributing this higher level work to the success of your organisation in the long-term. You would therefore be advised to assess an individual’s commitment to and engagement with your organisation.

A career aspiration interview is a semi-structured interview in which individuals respond to, and are probed on, a range of questions which elicit information about their short, medium and long term career interests and goals. These interviews are also used to ascertain engagement levels and gain insight into the key drivers of motivation and satisfaction for the individual. This method provides you a level of insight, beyond an assessment of the individual’s inherent capabilities, to examine the fit between their needs and aspirations and the environment of your organisation.

4.         Cognitive ability tests

It is of fundamental importance that high potential talent individuals possess the capacity to analyse complex information and solve multi-faceted problems. Cognitive ability tests provide very strong, objective evidence of the critical area of ‘cognitive capacity’. We recommend the use of a suite of ability tests, designed for high level roles, and combining assessments of verbal, numerical and abstract reasoning. This will provide you with a comprehensive assessment of an individual’s cognitive ability across a broad range of applications. When combined with a simulation activity, cognitive ability tests also provide evidence of an individual’s capacity to think broadly. Overall, the use of cognitive ability tests, which have repeatedly been shown to be the single best predictors of job performance, provide strong reassurance about the cognitive capacity of high potential talent.

5.         Personality questionnaires

As psychologists working in organisations, we are interested in what the results of personality measures say about how an individual will behave in different situations. A well-established occupational personality questionnaire (such as the OPQ32 or Saville Wave) can provide you with solid evidence of individual orientations and preferences which are relevant to assessing high potential. In particular, they provide evidence of how individuals manage themselves and their emotions, along with a range of other interpersonal and thinking style preferences. Well-validated personality questionnaires have also been shown to be better than unstructured interviews and work as well as structured interviews in predicting subsequent role performance. If the personality questionnaire is administered prior to the completion of a behavioural interview, the results can be used to develop targeted questions and probes for an even more effective assessment of potential.

6.         Behavioural interviews

Personality questionnaires provide us with evidence of an individual’s preferences but no empirical evidence as to how these preferences play out in context. It is therefore advisable to delve deeper and seek out past examples of these behaviours. For example, you may hypothesise from the results of a personality questionnaire that thinking broadly is a strength for an individual, however, you have no evidence of what this potential strength looks like in their work. A structured behavioural interview, carried out by experienced interviewers and based on the target components of potential, provides you with sound behavioural evidence of a range of key aspects of potential. This method is particularly effective at gathering evidence on components of our high potential model such as ‘Developing Self’ and ‘Achieving Results’ which are more difficult to assess using other methods.

7.         Case study or in tray simulations

The cognitive ability tests, measures of personality, 360-degree feedback questionnaires and interviews described in the preceding paragraphs help us infer an individual’s capabilities. However, there are also methods we can employ to directly observe an individual’s capabilities in a work context. One way in which we can see how an individual is likely to work is to ask them to complete a written case study or in-tray activity, in which individuals are typically asked to absorb, analyse and come to decisions about a wide range of complex material related to a fictitious work environment and set of circumstances. This can provide you with strong, practical evidence of the cognitive components of potential as well as aspects of the Adaptability factor of our high potential model (see Figure 1).

8.         Role / real play simulations

A role / real play is a very effective method for gathering evidence of the ‘Social’ and ‘Emotional’ components of potential. Individuals are required to interact with another individual or individuals in a fictitious or, potentially, real scenario and to address and resolve a range of issues. This type of activity can provide you with very strong confirmatory evidence of an individual’s comfort with and capacity to display appropriate interpersonal behaviours. A role / real play simulation is also a very realistic and compelling experience for the individual and provides a very sound basis for providing feedback on interpersonal style. The debriefing of these activities is also an opportunity to gather information on an individual’s insight into their own and others’ behaviour.

9.         Presentation simulations

Having an individual formally present their recommendations in a simulated environment provides you with very strong evidence of their capacity to influence and have an impact on others. It also challenges the individual to demonstrate a capacity to think quickly and, depending upon the subject matter and task, adopt a broad perspective and adroitly deal with incomplete or ambiguous information. Presentations also provide you with an insight into the individual’s capacity to manage themselves effectively in demanding environments.

10.    Assessment / Development Centres

Each of the methods above may be conducted separately. However, it is possible to incorporate these activities into comprehensive assessment or development centres. These are structured programs, typically half to two-days in length, in which individuals undertake a selected combination of the aforementioned assessment tasks. The crux of an assessment centre is that a group of individuals are systematically and objectively observed and assessed by multiple assessors across a range of activities which provide multiple sources of evidence of the factors which predict high potential. Usually, an assessment or development centre asks people to work through scenarios that are pitched at more senior levels than their current role. Undertaking an assessment at this more senior level would provide evidence of each individual’s future potential in your organisation.

Individuals would typically complete this program in a small group and would be assessed, observed and receive feedback from a range of experienced observers. Following the assessment activities, observers would meet together to review and integrate evidence of the individual’s potential against the key capabilities. An overall assessment of potential would be provided along with specific evidence related to particular strengths and development needs which emerged. The whole experience and the feedback can be debriefed with individuals following the centre. Not only does this methodology provide you with very strong and comprehensive evidence of potential, it can also provide you with a sound basis for planning the ongoing development of the individuals involved.

Bringing it all together

What we have provided here is a broad overview of the reliable and predictive ways in which you can assess for potential in your organisation. It is likely that you are already applying some of these methods in your current selection and development practices. It is important, however, to understand the differences in purpose between selecting talent to fill a role and identifying high potential individuals for your talent pipeline. Once you have defined what you want to achieve through your high potential talent identification program, you can begin to design and run activities based on the methods described above to meet your organisation’s needs.