Potential for What?


Welcome back to the series on potential, this enigmatic concept that is nowadays so central to organizations’ talent management. As promised, we will spend today’s post on the logical follow-up question “potential for what?” When we say someone has potential, do we mean to become the next CEO? Or to take a little more responsibility in his or her department?

Let us first state one thing loud and clear: In the broadest sense, of course everyone has some kind of potential. All of us can develop, learn new things, and stretch ourselves to master something we did not master yesterday.

The question is, then, why should it be important for organizations to highlight some people as having “more” potential than others? One answer might be that companies should talk less about high and (particularly) low potential, and more about different kinds of potential. It is certainly useful for organizations to try to forecast who is likely to develop into what, but that also calls for a well thought out answer to the question “potential for what?”. Most organizations that have a mature talent management have realized this, and employ a multifaceted definition of potential.

To begin with, potential can be more or less generic. Decades of research have shown that there are indeed some stable inner characteristics that tend to predispose a person to a very broad range of tasks and roles. The most important ones are general mental ability and some personality factors, such as conscientiousness from the Big Five. Silzer and Church (2009) called them “foundational dimensions” of potential, and argued that it is they that should be at the center when evaluating potential among junior employees. Since the specific roles that will be available ten years down the line are extremely hard to predict, it makes more sense to keep the evaluation of junior’s potential as broad as possible.

As employees progress through their careers, it becomes motivated to narrow the scope. Quite often, however, that tends to translate into a one-eyed focus on vertical climbing. According to a recent report from Corporate Leadership Council, about half of all companies define high potential as the ability to advance one to four levels within the organization. Research is now starting to criticize this “advancement only” conceptualization for being too narrow. The old pyramidal organizational structure is becoming increasingly more rare. With flatter, more team- and project-based organizations, “potential” might just as well entail the ability to take on a wider scope in one’s work, or to bridge different domains. It is far from obvious that a fulfilling career today and in the future necessarily goes upwards (Yost & Chang, 2009). Thus, as pointed out by Henson (2009), organizations should utilize the potential concept to address their various strategic needs. In many organizations, this might take the form of having multiple “potential pools”, for instance:

  • Executive potential; entailing those that are judged to have the capacity and motivation to take on a role in the c-suite or just below.
  • Management/leadership potential; comprising of employees that are viewed as having the capacity and motivation to take on leadership- and managerial roles.
  • Functional potential; for those employees that have spent most of their career deepening their knowledge of a certain domain and are predicted to be able to take on more complex tasks and/or roles within that function.
  • Highly valued; for those employees that are deemed to have a good fit with their role in terms of skill level but are viewed as highly motivated to learn and dedicate themselves to the job and organization – and should thus be afforded development opportunities within their specific setting.

These are of course only examples, but provide an illustration of how a more diversified view can often provide a better answer to the question “potential for what”? Junior talent might be best seen as more generic, but further along in people’s careers, a more “high-resolution image” is usually more useful.

As evident from this list, potential entails a motivational aspect as well as a skills-and-ability aspect. We will discuss this aspect more in the next blog post.

Photo: https://www.flickr.com/photos/bpprice/

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